The Bipolar Child, Part I: Reactions

Newsweek If you haven’t been reading the news recently, Newsweek magazine published a feature article on Max, a 10-year-old who struggles mainly with bipolar and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders among other mental illnesses. I read the article and was astounded at what Amy and Richie Blake, Max’s parents, have to contend with. I’m astounded at what Max suffers with.

The article was educational but for all the 8 computer pages that I printed, I didn’t read about Max; I read about his diagnoses:

Max Blake was 7 the first time he tried to kill himself. He wrote a four-page will bequeathing his toys to his friends and jumped out his ground-floor bedroom window, falling six feet into his backyard, bruised but in one piece.

He cried for hours at a time. He banged his head against his crib and screamed until his face burned red. Nursing, cuddling, pacifiers—none of them helped.

Richie carried his son to the backyard and tried to put him down, but Max shrank back in his father’s arms; he hated the feel of the grass beneath his small bare feet. Amy gave Max a bath and turned on the exhaust fan; he put his hands over his ears and screamed. At 13 months, he lined up dozens of Hot Wheels in the same direction, and when Amy nudged one out of order, he shrieked “like you’d just cut his arm off.” At day care, he terrorized his teachers and playmates. He wasn’t the biggest kid in the class, but he attacked without provocation or warning, biting hard enough to leave teeth marks. Every day, he hit and kicked and spat.

By 7½, Max was on so many different drugs that Frazier and his parents could no longer tell if they were helping or hurting him. He was suffering from tics, blinking his eyes, clearing his throat and “pulling his clothes like he wanted to get out of his skin,” says Richie. In February 2005, under Frazier’s supervision, the Blakes took Max off all his meds. With the chemicals out of his system, Max was not the same child he had been at 2. He was worse. … Off his meds, Max became delusional and paranoid. He imagined Amy was poisoning him and refused to eat anything she cooked. He talked about death constantly and slept little more than two hours a night.

During a recent appointment at Frazier’s office, he went into full-fledged mania. Laughing wildly, he rolled on the floor, then crawled over to his parents and grabbed an empty medication bottle, yelling, “Drugs! I’ve got drugs! It’s child safety!” Richie grabbed it back, Max screamed, Richie threw the bottle across the room, as if playing fetch. Max squealed and dove for it, then began to sing into the neck of the bottle: “Booorn to be wiiiiild …” Amy rolled her eyes: “Two kids.” And then: “It’s hard not to laugh.” (I’m not the only one who doesn’t think this is mania.)

All throughout the article, I couldn’t help but think to myself: Who is Max? Max without meds — does he have a personality? What does like to do for fun, even for short periods of time? Karate is mentioned — does he read? He has trouble writing for long stretches. He’s got a friend. What makes Max so charming other than the fact that he’s 10 years old?

(Image from Newsweek)

The article, in a way, did a real disservice to Max. Mary Carmichael, author of the story, certainly did her research but failed to show WHO Max is.

I’m not alone. A few people have complained about the article and its treatment of Max and the subject of bipolar disorder.

  • Philip Dawdy at Furious Seasons notes, “[W]hile it is an article filled with lots of detail and heart, it is
    also one of the worst pieces of journalism on the alleged disorder that I have ever seen.”
  • John Grohol at PsychCentral writes, “We’re always happy to see a human interest story such as Max’s in a
    mainstream magazine, but we do wish the reporter worked harder to present a more balanced picture of this issue (and the controversy surrounding the diagnosis of this adult disorder in children).”

Peter Breggin’s review, as anyone would expect, is scathing:

The front cover of the May 26, 2008 Newsweek has a banner headline, “Growing Up Bipolar” with a split-face photograph of a ten-year-old boy. The headline should have read, “Victim of Psychiatric Assault.”

According to the parents, the doctor told them that the bipolar diagnosis was a “life sentence.” It was a life sentence — to being pharmacologically abused by psychiatrists. At the age of ten, Max is now eight years into his sentence, and getting increasingly abused by his physicians.

But John McManamy at BipolarCentral.com extends rave reviews for the article:

Max, now 10, is hardly out of the woods. His meds are at best problematic. He needs special schooling. He has his “Mad Max” moments. But his life has also improved. He has a best friend. Last year his
teachers gave him a “welcome wagon” award for the hospitality he extended to new students.

At last, a story that validated the suffering and heroism of the families.

I could have hugged the reporter.

In the meantime, the Treatment Advocacy Center has a post that implies that Max will be a permanent harm to himself and others in society and that his parents should be given the opportunity to put him away when he’s adult, if they deem necessary.

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4 Comments

  1. Amber Anique said,

    May 30, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I read this exact report on MSN the other day. I had the same questions that you do. But, I think the part that made me feel good is the fact that it’s being mentioned at all. People are changing, I just pray that it’s for the better.

  2. May 30, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    My heart goes out to Max. It sounds like thus far he hasn’t been allowed to have much of an identity, other than as a boy with bipolar disorder.

  3. May 30, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    I still think the kid has Asperger’s, with all the sensory issues. I made a comment about it when Phil posted about this article on his blog.
    My heart really goes out to this family. It’s so hard when you have a child with special needs and you keep getting conflicting diagnoses.

  4. chato said,

    May 31, 2008 at 9:19 am

    I have mixed feeling… I just hope he get the right help and is not going become the another stick pin doll.
    Chato B. Stewart
    Mental Health Advocate – Cartoonist – and a few other things!
    http://www.mentalhealthhumor.today.com
    “Using Humor to Heal and Educate with badly drawn cartoons.”


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