Suffer Little Children (Sept/Oct 08)Friday, 01 April 2011 08:03
Alex, aged two, and Rebecca, aged four, had three things in common. They had each been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, each had spent most of her life taking the antipsychotic drugs that had been created for adults, and each suddenly dropped dead.[i] David Healy has told their stories in his latest book Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder.[ii] This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what is happening now in the marketing of mental illnesses and the drugs that supposedly treat them.
Bipolar disorder has become fashionable, with 5 per cent of Americans having some form of the disorder. Now, according to Healy, there is ‘a mania for diagnosing bipolar disorder in children.’ Some children have been considered to show the first signs of the disorder when they kicked excessively in the womb and screamed when born. (For many mothers, being kicked in the womb might be very uncomfortable but it is evidence that your baby is alive and well.) For adults to be diagnosed as being bipolar they have to be depressed and manic for several weeks in each state, whereas children can earn such a diagnosis by having several changes of mood with each day. (Many mothers would think that, if their two-year-old isn’t running the full gamut of emotion every day, he’s physically ill.) It is considered unnecessary to talk to the children or to observe the child in a natural setting at home and at nursery. All that is needed is the parents’ report on the child. The treatment is with antipsychotic and anticonvulsant drugs. The child becomes quiet and lethargic, in adult terms ‘good’, but he also becomes fat, and may develop tardive dyskinesia and diabetes, and perhaps drop dead.
Books like The Bipolar Child[iii] and Brandon and the Bipolar Bear[iv] ‘are effectively coaching manuals for the condition’. Small children try to please their parents by fulfilling their parents’ expectations. If the parents have stressful lives and/or don’t know how to look after toddlers (calm atmosphere, constant supervision, lots of cuddles, frequent encouragement such as ‘Good girl’, ‘Well done’) they can seize eagerly on something that absolves them of all blame. The fault is in the child.
When a psychiatric patient is prescribed a drug, or a cocktail of drugs, and fails to get better, instead of concluding that the drugs do not work, many psychiatrists complain that the patient is ‘drug-resistant’. In their thinking, ‘the reason that drugs fail to work must be that the disorder has taken too deep a root. The answer is to start treatment at the first hints of affective instability, no matter how young the child may be’. This may sound like science but it actually is a reworking, albeit unconsciously, of an ancient myth.
Babies arrive in the world being neither good nor bad. They simply are. However, the adults around them immediately start imposing their ideas on them, not just who the baby ‘takes after’ but whether the baby is, in essence, good or bad. These contrasting ideas form the basis of all our theories about how children should be educated. If children are seen as being basically good, the theory will concern how to draw out the good which is within the child in order to develop his individuality. If the children are seen as being basically bad, the theory will concern controlling the evil within the child and moulding the child into the shape that those in power deem to be desirable. Children who receive the first kind of education tend to be too individual to be predictable, and critical of those in power, whereas children who receive the second kind of education are either rebellious and can be punished, or desirably obedient and uncritical of those in power.
The Christian Church has always favoured containing and moulding the child. Children are ‘born in sin’, while the Bible warns, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ In her book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware Alice Miller pointed out that in our society, a good child sacrifices himself for the parents. In the Bible there is no story of a parent being sacrificed for his child. ‘It is always the Isaacs whose sacrifice God demands from the Abrahams, never the other way around.’[v] God-fearing, patriotic Americans, as most Americans are, cannot afford to see parents and society as being at the root of severe mental distress. When children are diagnosed as having a mental disorder, they are being sacrificed, not so much in the name of God as in the name of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.