Would a physician from the 1950s "have identified the frenzy to treat bipolar disorders in infants that developed in twenty-first-century American as a mania?"
In his latest book, Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder (the John Hopkins University Press) David Healy, author of Let Them Eat Prozac, looks at the historic roots of our current "medicalized distress" in which half the population is said to suffer a mental illness at some point in life and babies are diagnosed in utero as bipolar.
Bipolar disorder, once called manic depression, has been embroiled in controversy from its first descriptions in Paris in the 1850s. The pharmaceutical companies and academics behind its current popularity as a "catch-all" disease say it dates back to the ancient Greeks.
References to the frenzied behavior of mental patients found in Hippocrates' Epidemics books 1 and III, Plato's Phaedrus and other early writings almost certainly referred to infective states and not what we mean by bipolar disorder today he writes.
Even if the disorder existed before direct-to-consumer television advertising beamed its warning signs into living rooms, it was rare says Healy. Between 1875 and 1924 only 123 patients from North West Wales were admitted to the asylum in North Wales with what we would today call bipolar disorder from a population of a quarter of a million or 12,500,000 person years.
Lithium not only introduced the concept of a drug that could act as a mood stabilizer-- offering actual prophylaxis against a mental disease--it introduced the concept of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in which a drug's effectiveness is tested against placebo.
RCTs, part of what is called evidence-based medicine, are designed to refute a null hypothesis, says Healy, so that a successful outcome literally means "it is not right to say a treatment has no effect."
But RCTs were developed to forestall irrational medical exuberance and "cast doubt on clinical enthusiasms about new treatments," he argues, not to demonstrate "treatment effects of dubious significance," the inverse use for which the pharmaceutical industry has "commandeered" RCTs.
Medical case reports, now dismissed as anecdotal, have been edged out by RCTs in journals and as drug evaluation tools even though chlorpromazine (Thorazine), imipramine (the first tricyclic) and even Viagra resulted from case report vignettes, says Healy.
Moreover the suicidal and akathisia side effects that blemished the antidepressant Prozac were revealed --but ignored--in case reports of the antihypertensive drug, reserpine.
The data manipulation potential of RCTs is so great, charges Healy, it allowed GlaxoSmithKline to promote Paxil for child and adolescent "depression"--it sold 900,000 prescriptions in 2002--despite conclusive data the drug did not work in children as was actually harmful.
David Healy, author of The Antidepressant Era and the Creation of Psychopharmacology, was an early critic of the pharmaceutical industry's one-size-fits-all marketing of antidepressant Prozac and its selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) cousins.