The medicalization of ‘ups and downs:’ the marketing of the new bipolar disorder By Joanna Moncrieff Transcultural Psychiatry, April 7

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The medicalization of ‘ups and downs:’ the marketing of the new bipolar disorder


Joanna Moncrieff

Transcultural Psychiatry, April 7th, 2014 epub ahead of print


The concept of bipolar disorder has undergone a transformation over the last two decades. Once considered a rare and serious mental disorder, it is being diagnosed with increasing frequency in Europe and North America, and is suggested to replace many other diagnoses. The current article shows how the modern concept of bipolar disorder has been created in the course of efforts to market new antipsychotics and other drugs for bipolar disorder, to enable these drugs to migrate out of the arena of serious mental disorder and into the more profitable realm of everyday emotional problems. A new and flexible notion of the condition has been created that bears little resemblance to the classical condition, and can easily be applied to ordinary variations in temperament. The assertion that bipolar disorder is a brain disease arising from a biochemical imbalance helps justify this expansion by portraying drug treatment as targeted and specific, and diverting attention from the adverse effects and mind-altering properties of the drugs themselves. Childhood behavioural problems have also been metamorphosed into ‘paediatric bipolar disorder,’ under the leadership of academic psychiatry, with the assistance of drug company finance. The expansion of bipolar disorder, like depression before it, medicalises personal and social difficulties, and profoundly affects the way people in western nations conceive of what it means to be human.

Over the last decade or so, bipolar disorder, once considered a rare and devastating condition, has become one of the most widely diagnosed mental disorders. No longer denoting a severe and distinctive form of disturbance usually requiring specialist care, and often compulsory hospitalization, the bipolar label is now applied to a whole gamut of human problems. General practitioners, family doctors and patients themselves are increasingly making the diagnosis and seeking and initiating treatment.

This transformation of bipolar disorder has gone hand in hand with the increasing popularity of drugs used to treat the condition, first the anti-epileptic drugs referred to ‘mood stabilisers’, and more latterly the atypical antipsychotics. Antipsychotic drugs, once reserved principally for those with disabling long-term conditions like ‘schizophrenia,’ have become some of the best selling drugs of the 21st century, rivalling stains and overtaking antidepressants in terms of revenue (IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, 2011; Ilyas & Moncrieff, 2012). They are being prescribed with increasing frequency to both adults, and children (Olfson et al, 2006), and data from the United States suggests that the single disorder for which the new ‘atypical’ antipsychotics are most commonly prescribed in adults is bipolar disorder (Alexander et al, 2011).

The current article describes how a new concept of bipolar disorder was fashioned in order to establish a broad market for drugs like the atypical antipsychotics. It shows how a serious psychiatric condition was mutated into something so vague and inclusive that the label can be attached to a whole myriad of common personal difficulties, which thereby become legitimate targets for drug treatment. The new bipolar disorder is a product of social forces, and, like depression before it, has the power to transform cultural perceptions of the nature of human emotions and how we should respond to them. In this way, the new concept has the potential to shape the way people understand themselves and their behaviour.

The new bipolar disorder

An article in the British publication The Psychiatrist entitled ‘I want to be bipolar’ describes the relatively recent trend of people actively seeking to be diagnosed with ‘bipolar disorder’ (Chan & Sireling, 2010). This phenomenum is well illustrated by the story of journalist Patrick Strudwick, which was published in The Times newspaper in 2012. After the breakdown of a difficult relationship in 2003, Strudwick threw himself into his work and found he had periods of feeling unusually energised. He researched his situation on the internet and decided he had bipolar disorder. Although a friend advised him he most probably did not have the condition, he described how he convinced himself and his doctor that he did:

‘I want a label for how I'm feeling and drugs to make it stop.’ He recalled ‘I read reams about bipolar disorder. Every sensation of the past few months morphs into these descriptions of symptoms. I ignore the ones I don't have’

When he saw his general practitioner, he described ‘only the apex of the hyper moods, the edited highlights. The more complicated reality - that these episodes undulate, subside and sometimes last only an hour or two - I do not describe in case he doesn't take me seriously.’ Srudwick’s general practitioner referred him to a psychiatrist who assigned the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and he was started on a drug called Depakote. Strudwick took this for several years until another psychiatrist questioned the diagnosis, and eventually he started to doubt it himself. Finally tiring of the sedating effects of the drug, he weaned himself off. When he confessed to this episode some years later, two of his friends described how they too had been labelled as having ‘bipolar disorder’ in the same sort of circumstances (Strudwick, 2012).

The condition that was originally called ‘manic depression’ is a rare disorder in which the sufferer experiences episodes of ‘mania,’ characterised by hyper-arousal and over-activity that occur over a sustained period lasting weeks at least, and frequently many months. It is easily recognisable because the individual’s behaviour is completely out of character, and often out of control, and it usually leads to admission to a psychiatric unit, often on a compulsory basis. Most inpatient facilities in the United Kingdom see only a handful of such cases a year (Harris et al., 2005).

Current information on bipolar disorder suggests it consists of ‘unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and ability to carry out daily tasks,’ however, or simply in ‘unusually intense emotional states’(National Institute of Mental Health, 2013). Although the Royal College of Psychiatrists information leaflet specifies that manic episodes last for weeks or more commonly months (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2013), much literature suggests that symptoms can last for shorter periods. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) version 5 criteria specify only that a manic episode should last at least a week, and a lesser, ‘ hypomanic’ episode for 4 days, but the manual also contains a residual diagnosis of ‘bipolar disorder not otherwise specified,’ which requires no minimum duration of manic or hypomanic episodes (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Information produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness ( NAMI) also suggests that mood episodes might last between ‘one day and months’(National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013).

Internet based tests for bipolar disorder that have sprung up over the last few years often translate the episodic nature of typical manic depression into the idea that bipolar disorder consists of an enduring propensity to experience contrasting moods, loss of control and behavioural fluctuations . Thus one such ‘quizz’ asks participants whether their self confidence ranges from ‘great self-doubt to equally great overconfidence,’ whether sometimes they become ‘very angry and hostile’ for no apparent reason, whether they get into moods when they feel ‘very “speeded up” and irritable,’ whether there are ‘great variations’ in the ‘quantity and quality’ of work, and whether they have ‘periods of dullness and other periods of creative thinking’ (Goldberg, 2013).

Items on tests such as these describe variations that are near universal. As with personality quizzes in magazines, qualifying for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is judged on a sliding scale according to how often or how severe each experience is rated to be on a scale between, for example, 0 and 6. An arbitrary figure is proposed to represent a score above which the participant is likely to have bipolar disorder and they are given a message such as ‘you appear to be suffering from a bipolar disorder’ (Goldberg, 2013). Lower scores also generate advice that participants may suffer from ‘mild bipolar disorder’ and should seek medical advice.

Mood diaries are another technique whereby ordinary mood variation is transformed into a subject of concern. The diaries, available on many internet sites, require people to rate their moods on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Once translated into numerical and visual form, normal fluctuations in mood can appear unusual and worrying, and can easily be construed as incipient bipolar disorder (Healy & Le Noury, 2007). There is also a tendency to ‘eliminate any space for the “normal,”’ as anthropologist Emily Martin observes (Martin, 2009).

Thus modern-day bipolar disorder is portrayed as on a continuum with ordinary character traits and everyday variability of mood and functioning, a situation that is quite different from the prolonged states of over-arousal and usually deep depressions that constitute classical manic depression. As Patrick Strudwick noted when he attended the local bipolar support group: ‘The others in the group share stories of kaleidoscopic hallucinations, distinctly inappropriate public nudity and policemen fishing them out of reservoirs. My stories do not compare’ (Strudwick, 2012). The new concept of bipolar disorder can therefore be used to replace other diagnoses such as depression or personality disorder (Chan & Sireling, 2010), but since everyone has periods of increased energy, elevated mood or irritability from time to time, albeit some more than others, almost anyone can come to conceive of their difficulties as fitting with the profile of bipolar disorder now being provided. Anyone can be bipolar if they so choose.

Expanding the boundaries of bipolar

The concept of bipolar disorder was first extended in the 1970s with the introduction of the concept of ‘bipolar II’ disorder. This was said to be characterised principally by episodes of depression accompanied by occasional minor episodes of mania. However, the concept was not widely accepted outside the United States, and was not featured as a major diagnosis in the 10th edition of the International Classification of Disease, for example (World Health Organisation, 1990). Moreover, its relationship to classical bipolar disorder was not established. In the 1990s, a small group of academics, led by Professor Hagop Akiskal of the University of California, San Diego, formulated the concept of the ‘bipolar spectrum.’ This was said to consist of a lifelong tendency for moodiness, or ‘temperamental dysregulation’ (Akiskal, 1996) and was proposed to be the basis of many cases currently classified as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions and personality disorder, as well as applying to some people without a current diagnosis (Perugi & Akiskal, 2002). Although many psychiatrists are sceptical of the increasingly flexible bipolar umbrella, accusing its proponents of ‘bipolar imperialism’ (Paris, 2009), the sheer volume of papers Akiskal and his collaborators have published, many in the Journal of Affective Disorders of which he is Editor in Chief, conveys the impression that the concept is well-accepted. Akiskal has incidentally declared payments from makers of most drugs now recommended for bipolar disorder (Parker et al., 2010).

The reported prevalence of bipolar disorder increased in line with changing definitions. Although classical manic depression was commonly said to affect about 1% of the population, research suggests that less than 1 in a 1000 people were hospitalised for a typical episode of mania during the 20th century (Healy, 2008). By 1998, however, it was claimed that the prevalence of classical bipolar disorder with full-blown mania was 5%, with an additional 11% of the population suffering from bipolar II (Angst, 1998), By 2003 a total of 24% of the general population were thought to show some form of disturbance on the ‘bipolar spectrum,’ based on a study using broad criteria for hypomania without any minimum duration (Angst et al., 2003). Epidemiological research of this sort thus confirms the notion that bipolar disorder is common by using loose and inclusive definitions of abnormal mood.

Marketing bipolar disorder

David Healy has pointed out how academic and popular interest in bipolar disorder coincided with the launch of new drugs for the disorder in the 1990s, and with the formulation of the concept of a ‘mood stabiliser’ (Healy, 2006; Healy, 2008). The idea that bipolar disorder might be analogous to epilepsy was first proposed in the 1970s, and anti-epileptic drugs had been used in its treatment since that time. In the 1990s drugs used for bipolar disorder started to be referred to as ‘mood stabilisers’ although the precise meaning of this term was never clear, and psychiatrists could not agree on it (Bowden, 1998; Ghaemi, 2001). Many people came to believe, however, that drugs referred to as ‘mood stabilisers’ rectified something awry in the biological basis of emotional regulation. Use of anti-epileptic medications for people with mood disorders increased from the 1990s (Van Voris & Lawrence, 2010) and pharmaceutical companies started to run trials of atypical antipsychotics in people with bipolar disorder. In 2000 Eli Lilly obtained a licence for the use of its antipsychotic olanzapine (Zyprexa) in people with acute mania, and in 2004 a licence was granted for use of olanzapine for long-term treatment.

The licence, although it only applied to people with bipolar I disorder, since olanzapine had only been tested in people with this diagnosis, enabled Eli Lilly to legitimately market its drug to people with the bipolar label. Since this label was increasingly widely applied, marketing could be aimed at a broad section of the population. Confidential documents that were released in the course of legal proceedings make it clear that Lilly saw Zyprexa as the natural successor to Prozac, and the company set about devising a strategy to make Zyprexa into the ‘most successful pharmaceutical product ever’(Eli Lilly, 2001 cited in Spielmans, 2009). This strategy hinged on repositioning Zyprexa as a treatment for mood disorders that could be marketed to the millions of people who currently thought of themselves as depressed, and could be prescribed not just by psychiatrists but by general practitioners or primary care physicians. In 1997, for example, the Zyprexa product team predicted that sales projections would increase more than fourfold if olanzapine could be viewed as a ‘Depakote like..MOOD STABILISER’ rather than a ‘Risperdal like ..Antipsychotic’ (Tollefson, 1997, cited in Spielmans & Parry, 2010) (emphasis in original).

The repositioning of Zyprexa as a ‘mood stabiliser’ was achieved through a disease awareness campaign, similar in nature to previous campaigns that had publicised other vague and expandable mental conditions during the 1990s, such as ‘social anxiety disorder’ (Koerner, 2002). In 2002, Eli Lilly ran an advertisement on United States television which featured a woman shown dancing and shopping, interspersed with pictures of her looking glum and depressed. The advertisement suggested that ‘depression is only half the story’ and that people who were not getting better from depression might have undiagnosed bipolar disorder. (Healy, 2008,P 190). The advertisement encouraged people to log onto the website of the ‘Bipolar Help Centre’, sponsored by Eli Lilly, and to take a ‘bipolar test’ which they could then show their doctor in order to obtain a ‘correct diagnosis’.

Material designed for general practitioners also aimed to change perceptions about people who might previously have been diagnosed with depression. Lilly formulated the concept of ‘complicated mood,’ which was similar to the idea of the ‘bipolar spectrum,’ to bridge the gap between the serious mental conditions which were normally associated with the use of antipsychotics, and the sort of mental distress that general practitioners saw on an everyday basis (Spielmans, 2009). ‘Complicated mood’ was said to consist of common symptoms like irritability, anxiety, disturbed sleep and mood swings, which were suggested to be amenable to Zyprexa. Sales representatives were instructed to emphasise the broad action of olanzapine, and to encourage general practitioners to identify and prescribe to ‘higher functioning’ people at ‘the low to middle end’ of bipolar severity (Porat, 2002).

The media also helped to publicise the message that bipolar disorder was common and frequently unrecognised, as well as constructing a glamorous image, helped by longstanding, beliefs about the association between manic depression and creativity. Indeed, manic behaviour is often lauded as effective and productive and associated with success (Martin, 2009). In 2006, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) screened a two part documentary narrated by Stephen Fry, in which the comedian owned up to having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Fry interviewed a number of celebrities also said to have the condition, and Fry and his interviewees reflected on the excitement and drama of the condition (BBC, 2006). Fry claimed that four million people in the United Kingdom have the disorder- 8% of the adult population. The programme repeatedly emphasised the importance of early detection, claiming that the condition was often unrecognised. Fry appeared to see his mission as destigmatising the condition so that more people would be willing to identify themselves or those around them as ‘being bipolar’(BBC, 2006).

Bipolar disorder as brain disease

Although criteria and tests increasingly reflect enduring features of temperament and character, the new bipolar disorder is nevertheless asserted to consist of a brain disease or disorder that can be specifically targeted and rectified with treatment (National Institute of Mental Health, 2013). Fry referred to the condition as a ‘serious’ ‘disease of the brain,’ for example (BBC, 2006). Public information produced by drug companies repeatedly emphasises the idea that the disorder is caused by ‘chemical imbalances in the brain’ (AstraZeneca, 2012) that can be rectified with drugs. In 2011 the Geodon website (an atypical antipsychotic made by Pfizer) stated that ‘current medicines are designed to help correct these imbalances’, and was accompanied by a picture of a young woman sitting cross-legged, with her hands carefully positioned on her knees, in a perfectly symmetrical and ‘balanced’ position (Pfizer, 2011). Professional and patient organisations promote the same message. The Manic Depression Fellowship, now renamed the Bipolar Organisation, describes on its website how antipsychotics work by altering the ‘balance of a brain chemical called dopamine which is known to be abnormal in mania and psychosis’ (Bipolar UK, 2012). The UK’s ‘NHS Choices’ website describes how bipolar disorder is ‘widely believed to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain’(NHS choices, 2013).

The idea that any type of drug acts by rectifying the presumed chemical or neurophysiological basis of a mental disease has not been proven (Moncrieff, 2008). There is no convincing evidence that there are dopamine or any other biochemical imbalances in bipolar disorder, or that the drugs used to treat the condition work by reversing these. All the drugs currently used to treat bipolar disorder, including lithium, anticonvulsants like Depakote and atypical antipsychotics exert strongly sedative effects, which are likely, in themselves, to subdue and reduce the manifestations of acute mania, without the need to invoke hypotheses about underlying pathology.

Long-term benefits have proved more difficult to demonstrate, however, and most studies are confounded by the fact that withdrawal of some of these drugs appears to increase the risk of relapse above what it would have been without treatment (Baldessarini et al., 1999; Suppes et al., 1991). The placebo controlled study of olanzapine maintenance therapy, for example, found that the majority of relapses among placebo treated-patients occurred within three months of the substitution of olanzapine with placebo (Tohen et al., 2006). Moreover, relapse rates among drug-treated patients in trials like this are not superior to relapse rates recorded prior to the 1950s and the introduction of modern drug treatments (Moncrieff, 2008). In fact, people treated with olanzapine in the Lilly study, who relapsed by one year on average, compare unfavourably to pre-1950s cohorts whose mean time to relapse was two to three years (Winokur, 1975; Harris et al., 2005). Although a partial explanation may lie in the loose definitions of relapse employed in modern clinical trials, the evidence provides little reassurance that long-term drug treatment is better than no treatment at all.

There is moreover no evidence that any of the drugs used to treat bipolar disorder improve problems related to temperamental or emotional variability. Although lithium and antipsychotics have been shown to produce emotional blunting or dysphoria in volunteers and patients alike, studies of lithium have found no evidence that it reduces or stabilises mood variation in volunteers (Barton, Jr. et al., 1993; Calil et al., 1990) and there are no equivalent studies of other drugs used in bipolar disorder.

The idea that drug treatment reverses an underlying chemical imbalance displaces attention from the mental and physical alterations the drugs produce, and this may explain why the idea has been so widely promoted by the pharmaceutical industry. Antipsychotics and anti-convulsants have profound psychoactive or mind-altering effects including cognitive impairment, emotional numbing and sexual dysfunction (Moncrieff et al., 2009), and they are associated with a range of serious physical effects including weight gain, impotence, cardiac toxicity, tardive dyskinesia, brain shrinkage (Ho et al., 2011). The idea, as Lilly puts it on its Zyprexa website, that the drugs work by ‘correcting the chemicals found naturally in the brain’ (Eli Lilly, 2011) (italics added) helps to create the impression that the drugs are innocuous and only help to restore some hypothetical state of biochemical harmony, without causing any unwanted physiological alterations.

Paediatric bipolar disorder

Although it is the adult market that accounts for the bulk of sales of atypical antipsychotics, it is the use of these drugs in children, alongside the emergence of the diagnosis of paediatric bipolar disorder that best illustrates the way in which a severe mental disorder can be morphed into a label for common or garden difficulties, as well as the role that money plays in this process. In the 1990s, a group led by child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, who was based at Massachussets General Hospital and Harvard medical school, started to suggest that children could manifest ‘mania’ or bipolar disorder, but that it was frequently missed because it was often co-existent with other childhood problems like ADHD and ‘antisocial’ behaviour (Faraone et al., 1998). In a paper published in 1996 the group suggested that 21% of children attending their clinics with ADHD also exhibited ‘mania,’ which was diagnosed on the basis of symptoms such as over-activity, irritability and sleep difficulties (Biederman et al., 1996). A year later the group was referring to bipolar disorder in children as if it were a regular, undisputed condition, and emphasised the need for ‘an aggressive medication regime’ for children with the diagnosis (Bostic et al., 1997, P 1487). Popular books also started to appear suggesting a variety of common behaviour problems including temper tantrums, irritability and poor sleep were manifestations of childhood bipolar disorder (Healy & Le Noury, 2007). Just as internet sites help coach adults on how to describe their difficulties in ways which are consistent with a bipolar diagnosis, these books have enabled parents to reinterpret their children’s behaviour in medical terms, and to present it to professionals in a way that begs a bipolar diagnosis (Groopman, 2007).

The American media also initially encouraged the tendency of increasing diagnosis of bipolar disorder among children. In an article entitled ‘Young and Bipolar’ Time magazine reported on how manic depression or bipolar disorder was not as rare as previously thought and that: ‘Doctors …are coming to the unsettling conclusion that large numbers of teens and children are suffering from it as well’. The article stressed the need for prompt diagnosis and treatment and worried that without it ‘plenty of kids are suffering needlessly’(Kluger & Song, 2002).

As David Healy and Joanna Le Noury have pointed out, prior to the turn of the last century true bipolar disorder, or manic depression, was thought to be vanishingly rare in children. Like the bipolar spectrum, however, the more paediatric bipolar disorder was written and spoken about, the more it appeared to be a legitimate condition (Healy, 2008). In 2003 a group of academics formulated official ‘treatment guidelines’ which were published in the leading American journal of child psychiatry. Like Biederman’s group, the authors of the guidelines stressed the importance of ‘early diagnosis and aggressive treatment’ (Kowatch et al., 2005, P 214). They acknowledged that children with bipolar disorder did not meet official diagnostic criteria because they did not have clearly defined episodes and their ‘symptoms’ were not prolonged and severe. As with bipolar spectrum, children with paediatric bipolar disorder were said to suffer from ‘frequent and daily mood swings’ characterised by ‘intense mood lability and irritability’ on an on-going basis, rather than the sustained mood states characteristic of classical bipolar (Kowatch, Fristad, Birmaher, Wagner, Findling, & Hellander, 2005, P 214). Nevertheless, the authors recommended treatment with antipsychotics, lithium and other ‘mood stabilisers’ and regimes involving combinations of two or more drugs were suggested to be needed in the frequent cases where a single drug produces only a ‘partial’ response. Moreover, additional medication was said to be required for the frequently occurring concurrent disorders like attention deficit disorder and anxiety.

The guidelines were the product of a two day meeting held under the auspices of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, which was sponsored by Abbott laboratories, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Forest Pharmaceuticals, Janssen, Novartis and Pfizer. In the same year the guidelines were published, several companies sponsored a symposia at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in San Fransisco on ‘juvenile bipolar disorder’ which featured four talks by Biederman’s group (Healy, 2008). By this time, the group had started to run trials of various antipsychotics for the treatment of bipolar disorder in children, sponsored by the manufacturers of the drugs involved. By 2012, risperidone, olanzapine, ariprirazole and zisprasidone had been investigated, mostly in small-scale studies that were not conducted double blind. Unsurprisingly given their sedative properties, the drugs were said to have beneficial effects on symptoms of ‘mania,’ and the researchers concluded that larger double blind studies were justified. One of these studies was aimed at pre-school children aged between 4 and 6 (Biederman et al., 2005) and children were recruited to these trials through advertisements that told parents that challenging behaviour and aggression in young children might stem from bipolar disorder (Healy, 2008). The trials revealed high rates of adverse effects, including substantial weight gain, especially with olanzapine, but this did not deter the group from running further trials.

These trials were run from the Johnson and Johnson Centre for Paediatric Psychopathology Research, which was set up with money from Janssen pharmaceuticals, the makers of risperidone, at the request of Joseph Biederman. Confidential papers released during court action taken by parents alleging their children had been damaged by exposure to antipsychotic drugs, revealed the centre’s objectives included, not surprisingly, that it should ‘move forward the commercial goals of J&J [Johnson and Johnson]’ (Harris, 2008; Harris & Carey, 2008). It was hoped the activities of the centre would lead to ‘safer, more appropriate and more widespread use of medications in children’ and that without the data the centre could produce, ‘many clinicians question the wisdom of aggressively treating children with medications, especially those like neuroleptics, which expose children to potentially serious adverse events’ (italics added). An e mail message from a Johnson & Johnson executive stated that the rationale of the centre was to ‘generate and disseminate data supporting the use of risperidone’ in children and adolescents (Harris, 2008).

In 2008 an investigation by the Republican senator Charles Grassley revealed that Biederman and some of his colleagues had failed to declare millions of dollars of personal income they had received in consultancy fees from drug companies. When pressed by Senator Grassley, Biederman belatedly admitted to receiving $1.6 million from drug companies between 2000 and 2007, and his Harvard colleagues, psychiatrists Timothey Wilens, and Thomas Spencer, admitted to receiving $1.6 and $1million respectively. Even these figures may an underestimate however, since information provided to Senator Grassley by the drug companies indicated even higher payments (Harris & Carey, 2008a). The fact that the researchers had failed to declare the extent of their income violated the conditions of the substantial federal funds they had received to conduct research and their programme was temporarily suspended.

Before the scandal erupted, the head of psychiatry at Harvard assured reporters that Biederman would not be influenced by drug companies: ‘For Joe, it is his ideas and mission that drive him, not the fees’ (Allen, 2007). This was before the extent of these ‘fees’ became public, but even afterwards, it seems that Harvard did not see the incident as meriting serious punishment. The only sanctions levied against the three offenders were that they had to refrain from conducting company-sponsored research for one year, and subsequently submit proposals to conduct such research for approval for a further two years (Yu, 2011).

In 2006 four year old Rebecca Riley was found dead on her parents’ bedroom floor in Hull, Massachusetts. She had been diagnosed with paediatric bipolar disorder, among other psychological conditions, and prescribed a cocktail of psychotropic medication including the antipsychotic drug quetiapine, Depakote and another sedative drug, clonidine. Her parents admitted to giving her extra doses of clonidine in addition to an over the counter cold remedy on the night she died, and in 2010, both parents were convicted of Rebecca’s murder by ‘intentional overdose’, and received long prison sentences. Rebecca’s psychiatrist, Kayoko Kifuji was defended by her employer, Tufts medical centre, for practising appropriately and ‘within responsible professional standards’ (Carey, 2007). The judge at the trial of Rebecca’s father disagreed: ‘If what Dr Kifuji did in this case is the acceptable standard of care for children in Massachusetts’ he concluded, ‘then there is something very wrong in this State’ (Wen, 2010).

Rebecca Riley’s death was widely reported, alongside increasing professional criticism of the trend to label children as bipolar (Paris, 2012). Nevertheless, Biederman and his colleagues continue to publish numerous papers on so called paediatric bipolar disorder, including a major meta-analysis of drug treatments for the condition in which it was declared that ‘pediatric bipolar disorder is a chronic, severe, and often disabling psychiatric condition’ (P 749), with no reference to any criticism of the concept (Liu et al., 2011). In 2012 the group published a study of the antipsychotic quetiapine for ‘bipolar spectrum disorder’ in preschool children aged 4 to 6 (Joshi et al., 2012). The restrictions imposed by Harvard seem hardly to have dented Biederman’s research activities, which currently receive support from the drug companies Janssen, Shire and Next Wave pharmaceuticals (Joshi et al., 2012).

Shaping the self

Psychiatric concepts are products of social forces. As Martin points out, there is consistency between what is popularly understood as bipolar behaviour, and the values of 21st century capitalism with its frenzied financial speculation and its spectacular booms and busts (Martin, 2009). The culturally syntonic nature of this new concept of bipolar disorder has allowed it to be simultaneously valourised and pathologised, making it an attractive target for a pharmaceutical industry on the lookout for new opportunities. The cultural meaning of labels such as bipolar disorder in turn affects the way that people in western nations conceive of themselves and their everyday lives.

David Healy has shown how in the 1990s, with the discrediting of benzodiazepines and the promotion of the new antidepressants, the pharmaceutical industry helped to transform anxiety into depression (Healy, 2004). Advertisements and ‘disease awareness’ campaigns, often sponsored by drug companies, provided people with a new language through which to understand their emotions. This language suggested that negative emotions were manifestations of a brain abnormality called ‘clinical depression’ that was caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ and which could be rectified with antidepressants. People were encouraged to view their difficulties through the lens of their brain chemicals (Rose, 2004). That ‘neurochemical self’ has subsequently been transfigured from understanding its problem in terms of depression, serotonin and antidepressants, to viewing them as manifestations of bipolar disorder, possibly related to dopamine dysfunction, and requiring antipsychotics or ‘mood stabilisers’. Unlike depression, however, bipolar disorder potentially pathologises all emotional states, by encompassing positive emotions within the remit of the disorder alongside negative ones. On this view, the ideal emotional condition can only be achieved, for many at least, with the aid of drug treatment.

Sociologist, Jeffrey Stepnisky, has analysed the way in which biomedical technologies in general, and drug treatments in particular, are recruited to construct a modern sense of selfhood. ‘Where at one time the self was understood through the frameworks of religion, society, economics, politics or psychology’ he observes, contemporary culture reflects the belief that ‘selfhood is mediated by brain chemistry and genetic heritage’ (Stepnisky, 2007) (P 188). Based on interviews with antidepressant users he reflects that the use of psychiatric medication enables parts of the self that are unwanted or perceived as threatening to be split off or ‘held apart from the self’ (P 202). This orientation contrast with previous attitudes embodied in religion and also in classical psychoanalysis that ‘sought to integrate suffering and sadness into the story and purpose of a person’s life’ (P 202). Although the process of splitting may enable some people to function better in practical terms, it also renders whole areas of human existence uninterpretable, because they are attributed to biological processes. In Stepnisky’s view, the disavowal of the social, historical and interpersonal aspects of selfhood and suffering hamper the quest for the sort of deeper understanding that ‘allows life to move forward’ (P 204).

The consequences of growing up with this limited view of self are explored in research with adolescents who have been prescribed psychotropic medication. Studies reveal how young people absorb the language of illness and diagnosis from parents, doctors and the media, reinforced by the use of medication, and how this infiltrates their sense of self and agency (Floersch et al., 2009). Children who have been on medication from a young age may have difficulty understanding and developing mastery over their emotions and behaviours if they have learnt to view them simply as symptoms, and have never fully developed, or even known, a drug-free sense of self (Barnett, 2012, Sharpe, 2012).

At a socio-cultural level, the widespread use of psychotropic medication, alongside the view that its role is to correct an underlying deficiency, fosters the view that human beings are merely the incidental result of their biological makeup. The negative and positive aspects of experience can both be traced to the activities of neurons and brain chemicals, which can be successfully manipulated to optimise functioning. The concept of individual human beings as self-determining agents, whose collective nature creates a realm of culture that is more than the sum of its parts, is banished by this view, as critics of ‘neuro-culture’ have pointed out (Tallis, 2011). Moreover, this sort of biological determinism places the burden of social and economic problems on the supposed defects of individual brains. Getting depressed people better and back to work then substitutes for a proper examination of the problems generated by poverty, changes in the nature of employment and social and family breakdown. The economic crash can be attributed to greedy, hyped up and possibly bipolar bankers, and domestic debt and divorce statistics seen as the result of the impulsive and unreliable actions of people with ‘unstable moods’.

Despite these concerns, the neurochemical self can appeal to consumers, because, as Strudwick observed, identifying life’s difficulties as brain disorder or a chemical imbalance can provide at least temporary comfort, through the enticing suggestion that there are simple pharmacological solutions to long-standing and complex problems. The benefits that accrue from occupying the sick role, or having a medical diagnosis, provide a further incentive for consumers to seek or accept a psychiatric diagnosis like bipolar disorder (Conrad & Potter, 2000). The imperative to seek an explanation for under-performance or failure becomes ever more pressing as society becomes more and more competitive Young people describe how they feel an obligation now to seek medical intervention to enhance their performance at school, college and work (Sharpe, 2012). Similarly, parents struggling to bring up children in line with prevailing expectations may reach for the apparently concrete and blame-sparing notion that the root of the problem lies in the child’s brain.

A further reason for the consumer appeal of psychiatric diagnosis like bipolar disorder lies in the psychoactive effects of the prescribed medications. Although the allure may be most obvious in the case of the stimulant drugs prescribed for ADHD, which have well established recreational use, the mental clouding produced by antipsychotics and anticonvulsants may sometimes appeal to those in distress because of its ability to dull painful emotions.

The pharmaceutical industry did not lack a willing audience for its marketing activities therefore, but nevertheless, it is likely that the popularity of the modern concept of bipolar disorder is largely attributable to the considerable resources that have been devoted to its creation and dissemination. The concept’s commercial success was that it allowed the migration of drugs such as the atypical antipsychotics out of the arena of severe mental disorder into the much larger market of people with everyday ups and downs. A licence for use in bipolar 1 enabled this to occur without the infringement of restrictions on off-label marketing. With their strongly sedative effects, it was easy to demonstrate that the drugs had some impact on mania, and once a licence was obtained, the increasingly vague and appealing notion of the condition helped to spread use of the drugs way beyond the situations for which they had been tested. Academic psychiatry was complicit in this trend, which has culminated in the increasing use of these dangerous drugs in young children with behaviour problems.

In bipolar disorder, therefore, pharmaceutical companies found a diagnosis that allowed them to present their drugs as a specific treatment for serious disorder, while simultaneously thrusting them at a wide cross section of the population. Bipolar disorder proved to be as flexible as labels like depression and anxiety had been in the past, allowing the use of antipsychotics and ‘mood stabilisers’ in the general population to creep up without provoking the backlash that eventually came against their use for unlicensed uses like dementia. When the drugs go off patent, no doubt the publicity surrounding bipolar disorder will diminish. Other disorders will arise associated with newer and more profitable prescription medications. In the meantime, we can only hope that by documenting the strategy to transform and market bipolar disorder, people will be able to make more informed choices about whether this label, and the drugs on offer to treat it, represent the best solution for their particular problems.


The author would like to thank anonymous referees for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this article. No financial support was received for the preparation of the manuscript. The author is the co-chair person of the Critical Psychiatry Network.

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