February 17, 2005

There's a medical development underway in America now that's full of potential trouble. More and more of our children are being diagnosed as mentally ill. And, increasingly, they are being treated with powerful drugs.

One of the more popular diagnoses of the moment is bipolar disorder. Just a few years ago it was rarely applied to young people before they approached adolescence. But now, children not even two years old are being found to have it.

The problem with bipolar disorder is there's no clear test for it. And behaviors that often accompany it arise from dozens of other causes. Wayne Blackmon a physician who has studied the diagnosis of bipolar disorder said recently that with little kids all disorders pretty much look alike. He also says that some of the drugs the children are getting cause the very symptoms they they are supposed to treat.

Laurel L. Williams, a doctor in Houston says that over the past several years she has undiagnosed almost seventy-five children whom other physicians said were bipolar and placed on drug therapy.

As usual, in developments like this, money plays a big role. The drug companies are contributing to organizations which support widening the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Insurance companies are more willing to pay for administering  drugs than they are for traditional psychiatric services. The doctors themselves make three to four times as much from prescribing drugs  as they do from spending time to discover how much of a child's troubles may be coming from an unhealthy environment.

There's no doubt that some children suffer from a brain chemistry which can be helped by the judicious prescription of drugs. But that needs to be done very carefully with meticulous attention to  the whole array of factors that could be causing troublesome behavior. Everything I read lately tells me it's not being done carefully enough and that in many cases children are fed an array of powerful medications on no more than a hit or miss basis.

My advice to parents who have been told that their child has bipolar disorder and needs drugs is to respond skeptically. And never, never, never accept a diagnosis of bipolar disorder without getting a second opinion from a physician whose qualifications in this area are clear.

It's not a happy thing to stick a label of mental illness on a child. And it should be done only when we're sure the label is accurate.


©John R. Turner

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