Psychiatric fads

Allen Frances, Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, deconstructs the  phenomena of psychiatric fads:

To become a fad, a psychiatric diagnosis requires 3 preconditions: a pressing need, an engaging story, and influential prophets. The pressing need arises from the fact that disturbed and disturbing kids are very often encountered in clinical, school, and correctional settings. They suffer and cause suffering to those around them–making themselves noticeable to families, doctors, and teachers. Everyone feels enormous pressure to do something. Previous diagnoses (especially conduct or oppositional disorder) provided little hope and no call to action. In contrast, a diagnosis of childhood Bipolar Disorder creates a justification for medication and for expanded school services. The medications have broad and nonspecific effects that are often helpful in reducing anger, even if the diagnosis is inaccurate. 

The “epidemic” of childhood Bipolar Disorder fed off the engaging storyline that it: 

  1. Is extremely common
  2. Was previously greatly under-diagnosed
  3. Presents differently in children because of developmental factors
  4. Can explain the variety of childhood emotional dysregulation
  5. Has diverse presenting symptoms (eg, irritability, anger, agitation, aggression, distractibility, hyperactivity, and conduct problems)

The prophets were “thought leading” researchers who encouraged child psychiatrists to ignore the standard bipolar criteria and instead to make the diagnosis in a free-form, over-inclusive way. Then enter the pharmaceutical industry– not very good at discovering new drugs, but extremely adept at finding new markets for existing ones. The expanded reach of childhood Bipolar Disorder created an inviting target. The bandwagon was further advanced by advocacy groups, the media, the internet, and numerous books aimed at suffering parents. 

[hat tip: David Mee-Lee]