Psychiatrists Who Accepted Millions of Dollars from Drug Companies Now Face Restrictions

By Veronique Greenwood | July 5, 2011 1:52 pm


What’s the News: Three child psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who pioneered the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in young children failed to disclose that they had accepted millions in fees from drugs companies, Mass General’s investigation, which concluded Friday, has found. The three are now barred from participating in non-research activities sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry for a year, among other restrictions.

What’s the Context:

  • In 2009, an investigation into physicians accepting money from drug companies by Senator Charles Grassley found that Joseph Biederman, Thomas Spencer and Timothy Wilens, who had popularized the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, had failed to report millions of dollars they’d accepted in consulting fees from drug companies between 2000 and 2007—a total of $4.2 million. The companies included the makers of the drugs Biederman recommended for treating pediatric bipolar, and this revelation caused a stir in the national media.
  • Between the mid-90s and the early 2000s, diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children climbed a staggering 40%. The reasons behind this spike, and the research used to justify diagnosing it in children as young as two, have become extremely contentious. Objections raised by critics include that bipolar by the usual definition has its onset in adulthood, that young children are not mature enough for bipolar’s symptoms to be reliably identified, and that such a diagnosis allows doctors to give children anti-psychotic drugs intended for adults, whose effects in children have not been studied. These concerns were brought to the fore in 2007 when a 4-year-old with the diagnosis died of an overdose of anti-psychotics prescribed by her doctor. Her parents were convicted of her murder in 2010; her psychiatrist, after having her license suspended briefly, continued to practice.
  • While many scientists rely on research funding from pharmaceutical companies, the National Institutes of Health require that they report any payments in excess of $10,000 received from drug companies, for whom they may act as consultants, to their institutions, and Mass General’s rules required that scientists receiving more than $10,000 yearly from any company not be involved in studies of that company’s drugs.

What’s Happening Now: Mass General announced Friday that it had completed its investigation of the payments, and the three doctors said in a letter to their colleagues that they were banned from industry-sponsored activities—talks, conferences, and so on—for one year, and would also face two years of close monitoring and a delay in promotion (you can read the whole text here), but maintained that they had thought they were complying with institutional policy and acted in good faith.

The Future Holds: As federal funding for research shrinks, scientists are relying more on private funding. But Senator Grassley hopes that the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which was voted into law last year and will take effect in 2013, will ensure greater transparency about conflicts of interest. The law will require institutions to report any cumulative payments of more than $100,000 from drug companies to the government, and failure to disclose payments will incur fines of up to $100,000. This requires, however, that researchers report payments to their institutions accurately, which these three failed to do.

As for pediatric bipolar disorder, the debate over whether it exists, how it should be defined and diagnosed, and how it should be treated are ongoing, but the diagnosis will likely be changed to “Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder” in the next edition of the DSM manual, which doctors use to diagnosis psychiatric disorders. Advocates of the change hope it will prompt research that is more distanced from adult bipolar and more focused on diagnostics and treatments appropriate to children.

(via Nature’s Great Beyond)

Image credit: takomabibelot / flickr

  • Ryan

    I think there’s something wrong in the diagnosis of mental disorders. I think most people in the world would show symptoms of mental disorders if you put them under the lens of psychiatric treatment. Of course there are shades of gray, but it is difficult for me to support the treatment of such “disorders” with powerful drugs, even in adults, unless the case is so severe that such people present a danger to others.

  • Jim Johnson

    It’s easy to say that when you’ve never suffered the effects.

  • Brandt Hardin

    Pharmaceutical companies cause OVER 100,000 deaths each year from the drugs they push on the public… that’s 10 times more deaths than from street drugs. Does EVERYone need a pill for something? The real drug cartels moving their product on unassuming victims are the Big Pharma Companies, averaging over $25 Billion in revenue EACH. Their agenda and money has corrupted Washington and the FDA. Voice your concern with me at

  • Tom Hennessy

    Doctors and researchers MUST be held accountable. They are working in a field in which crime can lead to death.
    If someone dies during the commission of a crime one is guilty of murder.
    These researchers received MILLIONS of dollars for ‘consulting’ and were REQUIRED to report this DUE TO the FACT it is known that type of ‘consulting’ leads to biased research and premature death.
    “Three child psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School”
    “National Institutes of Health require that they report any payments in excess of $10,000 received from drug companies ”
    “Mass General’s rules required that scientists receiving more than $10,000 yearly from any company not be involved in studies of that company’s drugs.”

    They should be given alot more than a year paid holiday. They deserve at the very least a good beating and fines that would destroy a career. Imho.

  • crazyperson

    I really don’t get why this profession even exists. It seemed to me like every psychiatrist I went to was stumbling in the dark when making their diagnosis and choosing the treatment. Once they hear you’re often tired, that you experience some mood swings, they prescribe you a nice mix of anti-depressants. What, I think, is pretty disturbing is that there’s never a time when they’re sure that the combo they’ve decided is going to be right for you is going to actually work; it often happens that it doesn’t, which is when you’re offered a different combination. What’s even worse is that they never bother to tell you about the side effects or the withdrawal problems, and there are plenty. I’d know, they almost cost me my life.

    I’m sure there are situations where drugs like these might be a necessity, but from my experience, they’re handed out like they were candy perfectly safe for everyone’s health. Is there ever a time when a psychiatrist tells their patient, “Drugs aren’t always the best solution. I think you should try regular therapy”? Judging from my extended experience, no, never. I’m sure that, with time, this terrible practice is going to be faded out, just like ECT and lobotomy.

  • Karl Shellenberger

    Ryan, you don’t know how right you are! Anyone who hasn’t read Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker, read it as though your life depended on it. If you choose to put your health in the hands of any doctor, you simply must read this book. Borrow it, buy it, whatever it takes.

  • Iain

    Psychiatry is bunk.

  • Tom Hennessy

    Quote: I really don’t get why this profession even exists.
    Answer: You are not alone in this opinion. Dr. Hoffer who worked with schizophrenics for decades believed the ONLY reason psychiatrists exist is because the regular GP had no treatment available for some patients. Psychiatrists were therefore ‘created’ so the regular doctors would have someone to send their
    ‘untreatable’ patients to.

  • Laurie

    Research and news continues to show that financial vested interests are what drive the psychiatric industry. It is not a solution to re-name the “disorder”. The facts speak for themselves! There are no medical tests to evidence one single disorder listed in the DSM. Not one blood test, chemical imbalance test, nor X-ray. Yet, no one denies that people suffer from mental health symptoms. There are alternative treatments that are non-psychiatric and that medically evidence the true physical cause of those symptoms. Without financial vested interests driving the help to those that are serviced. See more info online about alternatives.

  • Nonethewiser

    Walk a mile in my shoes and then tell me we don’t need Doctors who specialize in the field of Mental Illness. Granted there are some that don’t care enough to really listen to what we say. That is why I shop for my doctors, I don’t settle for the first one to come along. I can’t afford to let some “joe blow” to treat me. My life literally is held in their hands. You must take an active part in your mental health, and learn everything their is about it and the meds that are prescribed. I won’t take a pill until I’ve learned all the ins and outs of them. I am alive and well because of my Doctors and the medication I take. So if you haven’t walked in my shoes, don’t presume to tell me whats Good, and whats NOT Good.

  • pheldespat

    “Three child psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who pioneered the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in young children failed to disclose that they had accepted millions in fees from drugs companies”

    They should be fired and have their medical licenses removed for good. You don’t play with people’s health, even less with children’s.

  • Brett

    Crazyperson: ECT is an effective treatment for major depression. Just see any person that has had this and see the huge benefits. I myself have a VNS implant that release burst of electricity to help w/ my epilepsy, but is also used for depression in patients. Though people may hate drug companies the lives they save a year outweighs the bad. Though any death is horrible comparing the drug cartels to the pharm companies is a bit rediculous. Psychiatrist are all boarded in neurology so this is not just a fad area of expertise . Yes there is some bad psychiatrist out there but finding a good one is a life saver. Drugs save lives everyday. Yes there is corruption, but what organization doesn’t have some form.

    Btw sorry for bad grammar using my iPhone. As well as I hope I didn’t offend anybody just my 2 cents.

  • Rocket

    speaking from the perspective of having been over prescribed for stress, the doctors I had seem to consider the dangers an acceptable risk to patients. Having had the worst experience of my life due to drug interactions I believe (at least for myself) for most behavioral issues, the cure is much worse than the disease. 6 months of hell because of the prescriptions led to almost two years of my body recovering. I’ll take slumps into depression for a week or two over a drug induced panic attack, or having the left side of my body go numb for days, or jolts through my muscles in the middle of the night. Those things can really screw with your nervous system and the effects last for a long time after you stop taking them.

    On the note of such an increase in diagnosis, as the research continues to explore more and more behaviors that become defined as a behavioral disorders, how much of it is now diagnosing human behavior as a mental condition? Everyone has mood swings from time to time. You can’t possibly be happy or sad, or anxious all the time unless there is a reason your mind is responding that way (unless of course there is an imbalance that has to be corrected by chemicals). I think most doctors miss the concept of trouble shooting what the underlying cause is and just throw pills at it. for example, your depressed because your wife left you and you are love sick, a situation that a pill can’t solve only time can. maybe its the money they get offered that clouds their judgement.

  • Iain

    Why aren’t these unethical beings getting their license to practice stripped away for life?

  • Iain

    The human condition is a disorder!
    Of all the hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of trillions possibly quadrillions of organisms on this planet, only about 7 billion are supposed to be capable of higher order thought processes. Therefore, higher thought is abnormal.
    Plus, psychiatry can’ teach what is right, they teach what was wrong and they don’t really have any cures that can be applied 99 times out of 100 with a +/- of 5 % 87 % of the time.
    In fact I don’t see how psychiatry can claim to be a science other than the founders called it that. The science of the mind. HA!
    No proofs, no cures that apply as above, no formula’s, no equations, no science, just conjecture and guesswork all glammed up with Latin to sound scientific.

  • John Sawkins

    So-called mental illness is sometimes the only “rational” human response to life events and world issues. It’s just that we poor “hypersensitive” souls are not meant to see the truth. For this very reason, we are medicated with zombifying “antipsychotics”. These allegedly treat our urge to ruminate, amongst other things. Ironically, the very characteristics that help identify psychopaths seem to be encouraged in patients: i.e.lack of empathy, etc (See Jon Ronson The Psychopath Test, and Simon Baron-Cohen: Zero Degrees of Empathy). Dare one suggest that these very same qualities can occasionally be found in the psychiatric profession? (As well as in dictators and CEO’s of big business).

  • Mike

    good psuedoscience is good business.

  • Carol Kaplan

    Psychiatry destroyed my family. Caused my divorce b drugging my husband who turned violent Nearly killed me with their damn drugs as they caused me to attempt suicide. They have gotten hold of my daughter who is now delusional and throws around diagnostic names like she knows what she is talking about the source of course is her shrink who encouraged her to leave me alone to battle cancer and took away my beloved grandchildren. I am now terminal thank G-d as the misery shrinks has caused and the pain and suffering is unrecoverable. They absolutely destroyed my life, my daughters life and the lives the extend from us. They nearly killed my friend’s daughter with drugs.
    Psychiatry is EVIL and always has been. Their history speaks volumes. Bone of this surprises me.
    I can name dozens of people who they have nearly either killed with drugs, have killed with drugs or have ruined their lives.

  • Michael S.

    Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would enjoy your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.


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