I’m told there’s a growing tension in the UK between parents and the various medical powers with regards to early onset bipolar disorder. In England, top medical organizations are holding their position: children under 18 cannot have (or at least, not be diagnosed with) bipolar disorder. A vocal group of parents says, “Bet me.”
This came to my attention last week when I was interviewed by a first year PhD student attending graduate school in London. The tension between these groups, and the prevalence of the diagnosis in the States is the focus of her research. She is using family interviews as her primary data which I happen to think is quite brilliant because unless you are living in the war zone, you don’t really understand how the bullets fly. Sure, you can hypothesize, based upon what you’ve read in texts and learned in a lecture hall or by doing hours in an adolescent psych unit. I maintain, though, until you are living in a house with a child experiencing the symptoms of a severe mental illness, you don’t fully understand the situation.
These UK parents do, and thus the increasing tension. Not that long ago, the top US professional associations and the DSM (name that version) said the same thing–children can’t have bipolar disorder. But how does that even make sense? Suddenly, the 18th birthday comes along and now you can have it? Luckily, for US families, extensive brain research and activist groups like NAMI have shown otherwise. We’ve learned that early intervention not only saves lives, it can be the difference between thriving in this world or getting caught in the revolving door of hospitalizations, prison, and the streets.
Bipolar disorder brings with it positive characteristics of high intelligence, creativity, charisma, and at times, endless energy. If a person can learn to manage the symptoms that can cloud these positive aspects–with medication, counseling, and a healthy support network–that person can thrive and give back in a way that can’t happen if they do not learn to manage their illness. Early identification can be a blessing if handled properly.
There are problems. It’s expensive. There’s a lack of child psychiatrists period, both private and those employed by organizations like he various Departments of Mental Health. The fact that the UK has socialized medicine may indeed be a deterrent to diagnosis. After all, if you say a kid can’t get it, you don’t have to pay for it, right?
Or has the US just gone over the top, riding the wild bull of diagnosis? The media would have you believe this. Blame it on big pharma. They’re taking over the world in the name of greed. But every class I teach I hear family after family talk about how hard it is to get a diagnosis even though their young, formerly gentle 8 year old is stabbing his siblings, and parents, and threatening to kill himself every day because voices are telling him to do it. I have NEVER heard anybody come in to a NAMI class and say, “Wow, they diagnosed Johnny Jr. so fast.” Never.
So I’m thankful. I’m thankful that this brilliant, PhD student has taken it upon herself to study this area. I have always felt like I was put on this planet to help the kids and I feel that education is always a first stepping stone down the path to change. I just hope, for the sake of the UK kids, they see what’s really at stake and act promptly.