It appears that the massive bipolar awareness campaigns from NAMI and various drug companies have paid off big time. The conclusions of a new study by Mark Zimmerman and colleagues in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry state, in part:
However, our results suggest that overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder is as much, if not more, of a problem than underdiagnosis.Say what? Well, if you've been following the mental health world, you may have noted that bipolar disorder is the new plague -- it is apparently spreading like wildfire. David Healy wrote an excellent article in PLoS Medicine in 2006 which has been validated by Zimmerman et al.'s latest study. Healy wrote in part:
One of the most famous direct-to-consumer television adverts for a drug begins with a vibrant woman dancing late into the night. A background voice says, “Your doctor probably never sees you when you feel like this.” The advert cuts to a shrunken and glum figure, and the voiceover now says, “This is who your doctor usually sees.” Cutting again to the woman, in active shopping mode, clutching bags with the latest brand names, we hear: “That's why so many people with bipolar disorder are being treated for depression and not getting any better—because depression is only half the story.” We see the woman again depressed, looking at bills that have arrived in the post before switching to seeing her again energetically painting her apartment. “That fast- talking, energetic, quick tempered, overdoing it, up-all-night you,” says the voiceover, “probably never shows up at the doctor's office, right?”Here's part of an Abilify for bipolar ad...
No drugs are mentioned. But viewers are encouraged to log onto www.bipolarawareness.com, which takes them to a Web site called “Bipolar Help Center,” sponsored by Lilly Pharmaceuticals, the makers of olanzapine (Zyprexa). The Web site contains a “mood disorder questionnaire” (http://www.bipolarhelpcenter.com/resources/mdq.jsp). In the television advert, we see our heroine logging onto www.bipolarawareness.com and finding this questionnaire. The voice encourages the viewer to follow her example: “Take the test you can take to your doctor, it can change your life….getting a correct diagnosis is the first step in treating bipolar disorder. Help your doctor to help you.”
This advert markets bipolar disorder. The advert can be read as a genuine attempt to alert people who may be suffering from one of the most debilitating and serious psychiatric diseases—manic-depressive illness. Alternatively, the advert can be read as an example of what has been termed disease mongering. Whichever it is, it will reach beyond those suffering from a mood disorder to others who will as a consequence be more likely to see aspects of their personal experiences in a new way that will lead to medical consultations and in a way that will shape the outcome of those consultations. Adverts that encourage “mood watching” risk transforming variations from an emotional even keel into potential indicators of latent or actual bipolar disorder. This advert appeared in 2002 shortly after Lilly's antipsychotic olanzapine had received a license for treating mania. The company was also running trials aimed at establishing olanzapine as a “mood stabilizer,” one of which was recently published.
Back to the Zimmerman study. The researchers interviewed 700 patients with the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV (SCID). Keep in mind that the SCID is not a conservative measure. When patients receive an unstructured interview, they tend to receive fewer diagnoses than when they are interviewed with the SCID, which makes sense because the SCID sticks to asking detailed questions about DSM-IV symptoms, whereas most interviews ask questions about a variety of topics, and don't go into nearly as much depth regarding one's DSM-specific symptoms.
These 700 patients were also asked if they had been diagnosed as bipolar by a healthcare professional. 145 of the 700 patients included in the study indicated they had been diagnosed as bipolar. Then it gets interesting...
Of the 145 patients diagnosed as bipolar prior to being interviewed for the present study, only 63 (43.4%) were labeled as having bipolar disorder according to the SCID. Remember, the SCID tends to generate more diagnoses than a typical clinical interview, so it's not like the SCID is generally insensitive to picking up on DSM-IV disorders. The researchers even took the liberty of diagnosing many patients who did not officially meet bipolar I or bipolar II diagnostic standards as having bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified); about 25% of those diagnosed with bipolar according to the SCID were labeled as having bipolar NOS. In other words, the authors of the study went out of their way to be quite inclusive, to label some cases that did not quite meet DSM-IV criteria for bipolar as bipolar NOS. So one cannot reasonably state that they were being too restrictive with how they made their bipolar diagnoses.
To put it straight: Over half of the patients coming into the study with a bipolar diagnosis were not labeled as bipolar in the present study when given a thorough diagnostic interview.
Naysayers. Of course, the "bipolar spectrum" club will unite to say that this article is junky. I read an email from a psychiatrist who stated that the study was flawed because the DSM-IV model of diagnosing bipolar is wrong; it is too restrictive. But since the current researchers went past official DSM-IV criteria to make some of their bipolar diagnoses, I'm not sure that is a very valid concern. But similar points will be raised over and over again. Those in favor of expanding the boundaries of bipolar disorder will insist that all this study showed was that the DSM needs change; it needs to broaden its definition of bipolar disorder. Those who were diagnosed as having bipolar disorder but were not labeled as such according to a thorough interview based on the DSM -- those people had "subthreshold" bipolar disorder, which will be labeled as an "underdiagnosed and undertreated" condition that needs to be remedied through more Awareness Days and the like. Doubt me? A group of researchers recently stated that "subthreshold bipolar disorder" was not receiving the treatment it needed, a claim they later retracted when it was pointed out that there was not a single shred of evidence to suggest that such a "condition" received any benefit from treatment with mood stabilizers or antipsychotics.
Why did bipolar become so hip? Mark Zimmerman, lead author of the present study is no pharma hater. By that, I'm not suggesting that he's in bed with pharma either; I'm just saying that he has no axe to grind. So how did he interpret his team's findings?
The impact of marketing efforts and publicity probably also plays a role. Direct-to-consumer advertisements that refer individuals to screening questionnaires can result in patients suggesting to their treaters that they have bipolar disorder. We have seen evidence of this in our practice...News flash, folks. Remember, documents seem to indicate that Lilly was pushing Zyprexa in primary care to treat watered down cases of... bipolar disorder. Cases that would not pass DSM-IV muster, but, if you stretched the diagnostic boundaries quite a bit, BAM, you've got bipolar disorder.
We hypothesize that the increased availability of medications that have been approved for the treatment of bipolar disorder might be influencing clinicians who are unsure whether or not a patient has bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder to err on the side of diagnosing the disorder that is medication responsive. The bias is reinforced by the marketing message of pharmaceutical companies to physicians that has emphasized the literature on the delayed recognition and underrecognition of bipolar disorder, and may be sensitizing clinicians to avoid missing the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The campaign against underrecognition, which is also illustrated in the titles of published articles in peer-reviewed journals, has probably resulted in some anxious, agitated, and/or irritable depressed patients who complain of insomnia and "racing thoughts" being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The Last Psychiatrist has also been duly keeping tabs on the bipolar epidemic (1, 2, 3) and I recommend reading his posts on the topic. To quote from one of them:
Yes, but even though the world agrees the symptoms are the same, the consequences of each label is very different, right? The epidemiology, the prognosis-- the meds?Right. We relabel conditions and act as if we just figured out the laws of relativity. It's not ADHD or conduct disorder or borderline personality or anger management issues or just, life sucks for you right now and you're having a difficult time adjusting to life's difficulties -- it's... bipolar disorder! Look at the progress we've made! But where is the data showing that these people who are being newly christened as bipolar are actually doing any better due to their new label and their new course of treatment? Doesn't giving someone a bipolar label impact that person? I'd probably feel differently about life if a medical authority labeled me as bipolar.
But the real difference is the societal implications. Getting a diagnosis changes the way you relate to the world, and the world relates to you. The label changes your identity and how you think.
Don't agree? Try killing someone and using "pervasive ADHD" as a defense. Get it?
We pretend that psychiatry is an emerging science, and hide behind a feigned ignorance ("we don't know everything, but we're making progress!") And so no one has to take responsibility, or even admit, that psychiatry is changing the evolution of humanity, right in front of our eyes, with nothing more than words.
So I propose that we start a Bipolar Overawareness Week, complete with a website linking to a questionnaire that makes statements like:
- Do you know that your symptoms are probably not indicative of bipolar disorder?
- Ask your doctor if you've been misdiagnosed with bipolar.
- Find out if you are unnecessarily taking Zyprexa today.
Hat Tip: Furious Seasons.