Ruined Lives: Big Pharma, Psychiatry and Overdiagnosis

Bipolarized: Rethinking Mental Illness

Directed by Rita Kotzia (2014)

Film Review

This documentary tells the tragic story of a man with presumptive PTSD who was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17 and spent the next 16 years drugged up with lithium carbonate. In 2010, after two attempts to stop the lithium caused incapacitating depression, he admitted himself to a specialist clinic in Costa Rica that helped him gradually taper and discontinue the lithium.

Although family and friends noticed an immense improvement in his functioning (he was less depressed and more alert, energetic, and focused), without the medication he continued to experience disabling spells of anxiety.

He tried numerous alternative treatment options:

  • He saw a naturapath who gave him 20+ intravenous chelation treatments for toxic blood levels of lead and mercury.
  • He saw a shaman in Colombia who treated him with psychic surgery.*
  • Yoga (partially effective)
  • Acupuncture
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation**

Finally he saw a psychologist specializing in trauma therapy who diagnosed PTSD and helped him work through childhood micro-traumas he experienced with an extremely physically and emotionally abusive father.

In May 2012, he joined a protest at the American Psychiatric Association annual conference  with hundreds of other psychiatric patients whose lives were ruined by misdiagnosis.

The film blames the tendency for psychiatrists to misdiagnose and overdiagnose serious mental disorders on the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the current “bible” of psychiatric diagnosis. Many psychiatrists acknowledge that recent DSM editions (DSM III through DSM V)¬† have been heavily influenced by Big Pharma. At present, the vast majority of psychiatric research is funded by pharmaceutical companies.

The current DSM V is very different from DSM II, the manual I used during my residency. Prior to the release of DSM III (published two years after I finished training), psychiatric diagnosis was based on a patient’s longitudinal psychosocial history. In other words, with the help of family, a psychiatrist took a full his of a patient’s emotional and social functioning. Beginning with DSM III, psychiatrists were trained to diagnose a patient based on a single interview and DSM III’s Chinese menu system of symptom clusters.

However even under DSM IV and DSM V criteria, it’s totally inappropriate to diagnose a patient bipolar based on a single manic episode. To qualify for this diagnosis, there needs to be a clear pattern of repeated mood swings.

For me the most interesting part of the film was a quote from Robert Whittaker (in Mad in America) about a WHO study revealing Third World schizophrenics have better treatment outcomes than those from the industrial North. The former receive mainly psychosocial treatments; while the latter are nearly always treated with psychotropic medication.


*Psychic surgery usually involves the channeling of spirits to eliminate acute and chronic illnesses.

**Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.