Child Bipolar: Newsweek Gets it Right

John McManamy Health Guide
  • "Growing Up Bipolar," read the cover story to this week's Newsweek magazine.

    I was dreading to pick up the issue and open it. Based on the appalling coverage of early onset bipolar last year in the media, I knew what to expect:

    Something along the lines of: "Lazy mother in collusion with organized psychiatry and the drug industry poisons own child - 'powerful' medications implicated."

    Early last year, the New York Times broke the story of the tragic death of Rebecca Riley, age 4, who died of an apparent overdose of medications used for bipolar disorder. The article and follow-up pieces strongly suggested that normal children were being inappropriately labeled for an illness that does not exist, and sedated with medications that should not be given to kids.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    The articles also strongly implied that the parents of any kids being treated for bipolar had a lot to answer for.

    The Boston Globe, 60 Minutes, and other media ran similar stories. Various antipsychiatry websites gleefully picked up on the media coverage.

    As someone who has reported on early-onset bipolar for nine years, I was sickened by these stories. I have listened to hundreds of parents. I know what they go through.

    Yes, one child died. Yes, there is no clear consensus on what precisely constitutes early-onset bipolar. Yes, giving kids medications intended for adults is not always a good idea. Everything else the New York Times and 60 Minutes and various antipsychiatry sites reported was a crime against the facts.

    "Welcome to Max's World," ran the headline.

    I held my breath.

    "Bipolar disorder is a mystery and a subject of medical debate," ran the subheading. "But for the Blakes, it's just reality."

    Then the lead:

    "Max Blake was 7 the first time he tried to kill himself."

    Could it be? Did reporter Mary Carmichael actually talk to a family? A real family? Did she actually take the time to find out what was going on?

    Let me make it clear: The New York Times and 60 Minutes did no such thing.

    The article went on to report:

    "He wrote a four-page will bequeathing his toys to his friends and jumped out his ground-floor bedroom window, falling six feet into his backyard ..."

    My God! I thought. This reporter actually gets it!

    Virtually every parent I have talked to has some variation on a jumping-out-of-window story.

    Later in the article, we read: "In 1995, child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman and his protege Janet Wozniak reported that 16 percent of the kids in their clinic had some form of the illness."

    Dr Biederman has been vilified in the media. 60 Minutes performed a hatchet job on him. One antipsychiatry group portrayed him as a "psychiatric monster." In his clinic, Dr Biederman basically made the same type of careful observations Galileo did, followed his conscience, and got the same kind of treatment.

    Newsweek was different. It gave Dr Biederman credit where credit was due.

    Max, now 10, is hardly out of the woods. His meds are at best problematic. He needs special schooling. He has his "Mad Max" moments. But his life has also improved. He has a best friend. Last year his teachers gave him a "welcome wagon" award for the hospitality he extended to new students.


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    At last, a story that validated the suffering and heroism of the families.

    I could have hugged the reporter.

Published On: May 22, 2008