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Reaction to 'The Medicated Child'

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Mom•logic friend and psychologist Dr. Pamela Varady offers her insight about the Frontline documentary on the controversy surrounding kids with bipolar disorder.

Last night, PBS aired The Medicated Child, a special that confronts psychiatrists, researchers and government regulators about the risks, benefits and many questions surrounding prescription drugs for these troubled children. The biggest current controversy surrounds the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

The special was riveting, and you could not help but feel for the parents who, every day, face their child's behavioral issues, balance the daily medications, navigate the doctor's diagnosis and watch as their child develops side effects from the prescriptions. The special shows how kids are impacted by their diagnosis and the drugs they take, with effects ranging from nervous tics to insatiable appetites, to sometimes even fatality.


We turned to Mom•Logic friend and clinical psychologist, Dr. Pamela Varady, for her reaction. Here's what she had to say:

"Watching this special evokes so many questions, concerns and emotions both as a psychologist and a mother.
First, the special did not address one huge problem in the world of mental illness and children--and that is the split between psychiatrists who are medical doctors and talk therapists also known as psychologists.

The psychiatrists focus on medications as the cure and finding the right "cocktail" to alleviate the child's symptoms while minimizing the medication's side effects. Psychologists believe in and focus on talk therapy as the cure-all for the child's mental illness, which was not covered in this special.

Because of this split, parents are faced with a fork in the road and most often are faced with which path to choose. What needs to happen is for these two worlds to come together, share information and research for the betterment of the common goal. Bipolar disorder is the #1 genetic (mental health) disorder, and if your parents have it, you have over a 70% chance of having it too.

Unfortunately, our understanding of bipolar disorder is in its infant stages, and what needs to happen is for mothers and fathers to band together and create a movement to unite the field, not unlike what parents did for autism, so we can move toward more answers."

Here's what Dr. Pamela suggests parents keep in mind when faced with a child with this mental illness:

Bipolar disorder is a spectrum disorder: This means there are varying degrees of symptoms--from mild--like the low frustration tolerance showed in the special, to the more severe, which the special did not show, where children are suicidal or harmful to others.

Trust your instincts: You know your child better than any doctor or psychologist. Do not hand over your power to the doctors because of insecurity. It can be scary because you do not want to be the one who screws up and makes the wrong decision. Many find it easier to give up power to the doctors because it is easier to blame them down the road. Trust your gut and beware of your own denial. Don't be afraid to face your fears.

Be your child's advocate: Become an expert in your child's condition by knowing the research, investigating alternatives, understanding the medications-arm yourself with knowledge. In addition, remember your child is a unique individual and stress this to all professionals when facing medications and alternatives. What works for one child, may not work for another and there's a balance between drugs, talk therapy and environment.

Get more than one professional opinion: Speak to several professionals--including your pediatrician, a psychiatrist specializing in this mental illness, and a psychologist. By speaking to several professionals who all come from different points of view, you will be able to create a comprehensive monitored program that considers medication but doesn't center around it.

Find a support group: Not only will you find allies with other parents who are battling the same issues, you will also find a place to vent. It's important to keep yourself mentally healthy. Also, support groups are great resources for finding out information and opinions on the professionals, medications, research and new alternative approaches.

Pamela adds: "The Medicated Child, overall, did a good job of showing many sides to bipolar disorder especially considering the length of the program. Unfortunately, there are many facets to this mental illness that could not be covered like the children who have succeeded on medication and have been able to overcome the symptoms that would have held them back. Also missing were studies such as one that shows how high doses of Omega-3 has had positive results with no side effects. This conversation is far from over, as so many discoveries need to be made and questions answered before making strides."

next: Moms Are Talking About...
62 comments so far | Post a comment now
Lori January 10, 2008, 5:40 AM

I wasn’t aware that we were medicating so many children for bipolar disorder. ADD? Yep, heard about that. Autism? That, too. But bipolarism in children? When did that become an issue with kids?

Sarah January 10, 2008, 1:08 PM

I find it shocking that so many children are on medication. Neither of my children are medicated and both are happy, healthy kids. I do not have a clue what would have to happen for me to even think about medicating them.

Today, as I dropped my 7 year old off for before-school care, I looked around the room and wondered how many of her classmates must be medicated and felt sad. To me, drugs would be a last result. I would do everything in my parenting power to influence a positive ourcome without using drugs.

It is scary to think that so many children out there are already in that worst case scenario…

J January 10, 2008, 1:51 PM

To Sarah-

You find it shocking b/c your kids are healthy but imagine if one suffered from bipolar disorder and had suicidal thoughts and extreme mood swings. Medication is effective in calming these symptoms. Some children benefit from the meds along with other therapy as suggested by the above doctor. Watch the special and out yourself in the shoes of those mothers. It is not an easy decision to put your child on meds and it is not about them being “sad.”

Marilee January 11, 2008, 1:50 PM

I missed the program and had wanted to watch. What parents of normal or relatively normal children don’t understand is that most of the children being treated are not normal. Can you imagine what it is like to have a five year old who wants to die? This same child will pick holes in her fingers and hand just to see them bleed. It is horrible to go thru, but yet so wonderful that there are trained specialists who understand and can medicated this child and now for the first time in a great while, you have a “normal child”. We are very grateful to our psychiatrist for returning our child to us. So I do not believe it is all a hoax. There will always be doctors who prescribe to easily without a complete and careful diagnosis.

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