I tried to pull excerpts from this but had too difficult a time finding stuff to excise. Consider this a teaser and take the time to read the full article:
No one has done more to convince Americans that even small children can suffer the dangerous mood swings of bipolar disorder than Dr. Joseph Biederman of Massachusetts General Hospital.
From his perch as one of the world’s most influential child psychiatrists, Biederman has spread far and wide his conviction that the emotional roller coaster of bipolar disorder can start “from the moment the child opened his eyes” at birth. Psychiatrists used to regard bipolar disorder as a disease that begins in young adulthood, but now some diagnose it in children scarcely out of diapers, treating them with powerful antipsychotic medications based on Biederman’s work.
“We need to treat these children. They are in a desperate state,” Biederman said in an interview, producing a video clip of a tearful mother describing the way her preschool daughter assaulted her before the child began treatment for bipolar disorder. The chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Mass. General, he compares his work to scientific break throughs of the past such as the first vaccinations against disease.
But the death in December of a 4-year-old Hull girl from an overdose of drugs prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has triggered a growing backlash against Biederman and his followers. Rebecca Riley’s parents have been charged with deliberately giving the child overdoses of Clonidine, a medication sometimes used to calm aggressive children. Still, many wondered why a girl so young was being treated in the first place with Clonidine and two other psychiatric drugs, including one not approved for children’s use. Riley’s psychiatrist has said she was influenced by the work of Biederman and his protege, Dr. Janet Wozniak.
“They are by far the leading lights in terms of providing leadership in the treatment of children who have disorders such as bipolar,” said J. W. Carney Jr., lawyer for Dr. Kayoko Kifuji, a Tufts-New England Medical Center psychiatrist who temporarily gave up her medical license after Riley died on Dec. 13, 2006. “Dr. Kifuji subscribes to the views of the Mass. General team.”
Part of the criticism of Biederman speaks to a deeper issue in psychiatry: the extensive financial ties between the drug industry and researchers. Biederman has received research funding from 15 drug companies and serves as a paid speaker or adviser to seven of them, including Eli Lilly & Co. and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which make the multi billion-dollar antipsychotic drugs Zyprexa and Risperdal, respectively. Though not much money was earmarked for bipolar research, critics say the resources help him advance his aggressive drug treatment philosophy.
Numerous psychiatrists say Riley’s overdose suggests that bipolar disorder is becoming a psychiatric fad, leaving thousands of children on risky medications based on symptoms such as chronic irritability and aggressiveness that could have other causes. Riley’s father, for example, had only recently returned to the home after being accused of child abuse, according to police. Since the girl’s death, state officials have stepped up a review of the 8,343 children taking the latest antipsychotic medications under the Medicaid program for conditions including bipolar disorder, to be sure the treatment is appropriate.
Psychiatrists too often prescribe th
ese medications, which carry side effects such as weight gain and heart disease risk, without addressing problems in the children’s lives, said Dr. Gordon Harper, director of child and adolescent services at the state Department of Mental Health. He likened the approach to “tuning the piano while the subway is going by.”
Biederman’s critics chide him for not speaking out against misuses of a diagnosis that he has helped inspire. Among leading authorities on bipolar disorder, the Mass. General team has proposed the most aggressive treatment for the broadest group of children, they say, and Biederman should take responsibility when treatment goes wrong. At a conference on bipolar disorder at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University last weekend, one speaker, Dr. Lawrence Diller, a California behavioral pediatrician, contended that Biederman bears some blame for Riley’s death.
“I find Biederman and his group to be morally responsible in part,” said Diller, whose popular book, “Running on Ritalin,” accused psychiatrists of over treating another childhood condition, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He didn’t write the prescription, but he provided all the, quote, scientific justification to address a public health issue by drugging little kids.”
Biederman rejects the idea that Riley’s death is a cautionary tale, accusing critics of exploiting a tragedy to fan fears about psychiatry, a profession that has long faced prejudice. “The fact that she had XY drug or XY treatment is irrelevant to what happened. . . . If this child had the same outcome from treatment for asthma or seizures, we wouldn’t have this frenzy,” said Biederman in an interview at Mass. General’s Cambridge mental health clinic.
Though Biederman acknowledges that distinguishing bipolar disorder from ordinary crankiness and flights of fancy in young children is challenging, he insists there is no ambiguity in the patients at his practice. “People have to wait a long time to see me or my colleagues. . . . It’s not that somebody comes to me after their child has a temper tantrum. They do things for years that are dangerous. These are things that profoundly affect the child,” said Biederman, putting them at risk of academic failure or even suicide.
Biederman dismisses most critics, saying that they cannot match his scientific credentials as co author of 30 scientific papers a year and director of a major research program at the psychiatry department that is top-ranked in the “US News & World Report” ratings.
The critics “are not on the same level. We are not debating as to whether [a critic] likes brownies and I like hot dogs. In medicine and science, not all opinions are created equal,” said Biederman, a native of Czechoslovakia who came to Mass. General in 1979 after medical training in Argentina and Israel. He now lives in Brookline.