Writer For Rookie Paints Too Pretty a Picture of Her Treatment For Bipolar Disorder

It was generous of Sady Doyle, a New York writer in her thirties, to use her real name when writing about her bipolar disorder for Rookie, the website for teenage girls. (“Because of this article, you’ll always be able to Google me and find out that I have this sickness.”) It is what I expect from Rookie to post this sort of thing — I was a big fan of Sassy, an earlier magazine for teenage girls that tried hard to be truthful. But I was surprised to see this:

Here’s the part of the story that matters: once I got the diagnosis, got the pills, and got in touch with a therapist I really liked, I woke up in the morning. And I was happy, genuinely happy, for the first time in a very long time. That’s what matters about my nervous breakdown—or yours, or anyone’s. When I got the help I needed, I was able to recover.

Okay, that’s what happened, as Brave New Worldish as it may sound. But is it true “that’s what matters” — meaning that’s all that matters? No, I don’t think so. I think it also matters (a lot) that Doyle has been told she must take pills (such as lithium) for the rest of her life and those pills usually have bad side effects (lithium causes weight gain, for example). It is seriously misleading for Doyle to fail to make these points. Doyle vaguely implies she has been told she will need to take pills for “a long time”, which is an understatement, and says nothing about side effects. Maybe she omitted this stuff because she didn’t want her readers “to be afraid to seek treatment” (as she might put it). That is the opposite of truth telling.

Here’s something about current treatments for bipolar disorder (a comment left on an article about drug company deception) that is as true now as when I quoted it three days ago:

Thirty years of bipolar disorder taking virtually every possible anti-depressant over time, and at times when hospitalized, forced to take them under the duress of threatened sectioning under the Mental Health Act. Throughout those years I told the psychiatrists that the drugs didn’t work beyond an initial “placebo effect” lasting about 2 weeks, and that the side effects were often awful.

I am not saying bipolar disorder drugs are worthless. I am saying they have bad side effects so often that any description of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder that makes claims of universality (“That’s what matters about my nervous breakdown—or yours, or anyone’s”) should point this out.

3 Responses to “Writer For Rookie Paints Too Pretty a Picture of Her Treatment For Bipolar Disorder”

  1. Jill Says:

    How long has she (Sady) been on a regimen that works? Perhaps she is in a sort of “honeymoon” period, during which the relief is so great that to her, right now, that’s all that matters. As a journalist, she owes her audience something a bit less short-sighted, but it’s not necessarily “the opposite of truth telling.”

    Seth: Yes, an update after a year would be a good idea.

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Sady Doyle should read Robert Whitaker’s book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, particularly Chapter 9 (“The Bipolar Boom”). Here’s a paragraph that I was able to extract from the preview on Amazon (I removed the superscripts that reference footnotes):

    The remarkable decline in the functional outcomes of bipolar patients is easy to document. In the pre-lithium era, 85 percent of mania patients would return to work or to their “pre-morbid” social role (as a housewife, for example). As Winokur wrote in 1969, most patients had “no difficulty resuming their usual occupations.” But then bipolar patients began cycling through emergency rooms more frequently, employment rates began to decline, and soon investigators were reporting that fewer than half of all bipolar patients were employed or otherwise “functionally recovered.” In 1995, Michael Gitlin at UCLA reported that only 28 percent of his bipolar patients had a “good occupational outcome” at the end of five years. Three years later, psychiatrists at the University of Cincinnati announced that only 24 percent of their bipolar patients were “functionally recovered” at the end of one year. David Kupfer at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, in a study of 2,839 bipolar patients, discovered that even though 60 percent had attended college and 30 percent had graduated, two-thirds were unemployed. “In summary,” wrote Ross Baldessarini in a 2007 review article, “functional status is far more impaired in type I bipolar patients than previously believed, [and] remarkably, there is some evidence that functional outcome in type II bipolar patients may be even worse than in type I.”

  3. Jim Purdy Says:

    I think medical students must be taught nonsense like this:

    Bipolar disorder is caused by a lithium deficiency.
    Diabetes is caused by a metformin deficiency.
    High LDL is caused by a statin deficiency.
    Obesity is caused by a xenical deficiency.
    Pain is caused by an oxycodone deficiency.
    Upset stomach is caused by a proton pump inhibitor deficiency.

    Geez. How has modern “medical science” (Now there’s an oxymoron!) gotten so loony?

    Seth: I think they are taught that depression, etc., are “biochemical” disorders. Which means nothing but supports the use of drugs. A Berkeley psychology major who worked in a job where she encountered lots of people with mental disorders found they were quite different than she had been taught. Diagnosis was less clear, for one thing.