Robert Whitaker’s Hypotheses About Childhood Bipolar Disorder

I read Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America as a counterpoint assignment in one of the diagnosis classes in my Couples & Family Therapy program. It is an excellent book about the history and science of several psychological problems, both as phenomena and diagnoses, including depression, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia. As a university student, I had the opportunity to check out, for free, any of the many academic citations in the book that piqued my interest; each one that I looked at seemed indeed to provide the evidence he claimed. I haven’t read anything like all of them (there are nearly 700 citations), but enough to satisfy myself that Whitaker has done some good journalism here, and that his hypotheses are credible.

Two of these hypotheses is about childhood bipolar disorder, the first of which he calls the “ADHD to bipolar pathway.” The side effects of stimulants such as those used to treat ADHD are substantially similar to bipolar symptoms, as shown in the table below, from p. 238. (The formatting here is slightly different than Whitaker’s, thanks to an Open Office/Wordpress interaction.) Multiplying the estimated rate of stimulant-induced bipolar-like symptoms by the 3,500,000 children and teens taking those medications, Whitaker estimates we should see approximately 400,000 “bipolar youth” as a result.

The ADHD to Bipolar Pathway

Stimulant-Induced Symptoms Bipolar Symptoms
Arousal Dysphoric Arousal Dysphoric
Increased lethargyIntensified focusHyperalertnessEuphoriaAgitation, anxietyInsomniaIrritability





SomnolenceFatigue, lethargySocial withdrawal, isolationDecreased spontaneityReduced curiosityConstriction of affectDepression

Emotional lability

Increased energyIntensified goal-directed activityDecreased need for sleepSevere mood changeIrritabilityAgitationDestructive outbursts

Increased talking



Sad moodLoss of energyLoss of interest in activitiesSocial isolationPoor communicationFeelings of worthlessnessUnexplained crying

The second part of Whitaker’s thinking on childhood bipolar disorder is an SSRI to bipolar pathway. Estimates of the rate of the well-know SSRI side effect of mania, multiplied by 2,000,000 children and adolescents on the medications, give us the possibility of producing at least 500,000 SSRI-induced bipolar disorders in young people.

If true, these hypotheses could go a long way to explain the skyrocketing rates of childhood bipolar disorder diagnoses, as most diagnoses of childhood bipolar disorder are made on children who are already taking stimulants and/or SSRIs. The primary alternative, and more mainstream, hypothesis is not that stimulants and SSRIs are iatrogenic, but that since those medications solve the problems of ADHD and depression, the symptoms of bipolar disorder that emerge show that the diagnostician had initially guessed wrong, and that bipolar disorder was the previously-existing and underlying cause of the ADHD and/or depression. This, of course, may be true, but it seems very important to discover for certain whether it is!

(Originally published here on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

A Perflouroalkyl Chemical Hypothesis of ADHD

As a family therapist, when I am presented with a child exhibiting symptoms of ADHD, I am trained to look at the child’s environment and history, especially their family relationships. How is it that these behaviors might be a response to the stresses that the child is experiencing? The point is that I do not just assume that the child has been genetically programmed to disrupt their classroom. I came across this study last year, though, that was a good reminder that “environment and history” are bigger than what happens in-between family members.

It found that children with higher levels of polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) in their blood were more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD. PFCs are long-lasting industrial substances that we accidentally eat and breath into our bodies from various coatings, foams, emulsifiers, and cleaning and personal products. Almost all of us have detectable levels of them in our bloodstreams. They are known to be toxic in other animals to the liver, immune and reproductive systems, and fetal development. It is also starting to look like they are neurotoxins as well.

The study was of correlations, so whether the PFCs caused the children to get ADHD diagnoses remains to be seen. ADHD may turn out to be a PFC-toxity-induced syndrome. Or it could be that PFC levels in mothers correlates with that of children, and that it is in-utero PFC levels that are critical. Or perhaps having an ADHD diagnosis causes children to eat and/or breath more coatings, foams, and emulsifiers. Or who knows what else?

Until the scientists know for sure, here are some ways to limit your PFC exposure, from Environmental Working Group:

Forgo the optional stain treatment on new carpets and furniture.
Find products that haven’t been pre-treated, and if the couch you own is treated, get a cover for it.
Choose clothing that doesn’t carry Teflon® or ScotchgardTM tags.
This includes fabric labeled stain- or water-repellent. When possible, opt for untreated cotton and wool.
Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils.
Opt for stainless steel or cast iron instead.
Cut back on greasy packaged and fast foods.
These foods often come in treated wrappers.
Use real plates instead of paper.

Pop popcorn the old-fashioned way on the stovetop.
Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated with PFCs on the inside.
Choose personal care products without “PTFE” or “perfluoro” in the ingredients.
Use EWG’s Skin Deep at to find safer choices.

Diagnostic Criteria for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

[First posted on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, May 1, 2010.]

The DSM-IV-TR reports a prevalence of 3-7% for the famous AD/HD, depending, somewhat cryptically, on “the population sampled and the method of ascertainment” (p. 90). AD/HD is a shoe-in for medication in the minds of most mental health professionals. Children have been treated for this Disorder with stimulants since 1937. We still do not know for certain, however, what the effects are on adults who took stimulants as children. We do know that AD/HD tends to go away during adolescence.

Here are the diagnostic criteria, straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Note that criterion C is an attempt to make sure that the troublesome behavior is not just a reaction to one situation, like school–you shouldn’t be diagnosed AD/HD based on behavior that only happens at school, or just at home. That would be something else going on. Note also that, according to the “coding note” at the bottom that once you have this diagnosis, unless you have none of these symptoms, you will always be considered AD/HD “in partial remission.” One last note: I notice in reading literature referring to this Disorder that it is usually referred to as ADD/ADHD. I don’t know why this is, as there is no “Attention Deficit Disorder” in the DSM-IV-TR. Perhaps there was in earlier editions.

Diagnostic criteria for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

A. Either (1) or (2):

(1) six (or more) of the following symptoms of inattention have persisted for at least 6 months to a degree that is maladaptive and inconsistent with developmental level:


(a) often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities

(b) often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities

(c) often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly

(d) often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish school-work, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions)

(e) often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities

(f) often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork or homework)

(g) often loses things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)

(h) is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli

(i) is often forgetful in daily activities

(2) six (or more) of the following symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have persisted for at least 6 months to a degree that is maladaptive and inconsistent with development level:


(a) often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat

(b) often leaves seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected

(c) often runs about or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate (in adolescents or adults, may be limited to subjective feelings of restlessness)

(d) often has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly

(e) is often “on the go” or often acts as if “driven by a motor”

(f) often talks excessively


(g) often blurts out answers before questions have been completed

(h) often has difficulty awaiting turn

(i) often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)

B. Some hyperactive-impulsive or inattentive symptoms that caused impairment were present before age 7 years.

C. Some impairment from the symptoms is present in two or more settings (e.g., at shool [or work] and at home).

D. There must be clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning.

E. The symptoms do not occur exclusively during the course of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia, or other Psychotic Disorder and are not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g., Mood Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Dissociative Disorder, or a Personality Disorder).

Code based on type:

314.01 Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Combined Type: if both Criteria A1 and A2 are met for the past 6 months

314.00 Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Predominantly Inattentive Type:if Criterion A1 is met but Criterion A2 is not met for the past 6 months

314.01 Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type: if Criterion A2 is met but Criterion A1 is not met for the past 6 months

Coding note: For individuals (especially adolescents and adults) who currently have symptoms that no longer meet full criteria, “In Partial Remission” should be specified.