While other TV films have previously explored this controversial illness, Diagnosis Bipolar brings viewers deeply into lives of families living with pediatric bipolar mood disorder (once called manic depression) for the first time. The stories told by the parents and children themselves reveal daily heartbreaks, failures and triumphs. Clearly, there are no easy answers: Doctors admit this diagnosis is poorly understood, and work with parents to sort through untested medications with debilitating side effects and unknown longterm results. The parents' honest and intimate observations underscore their remarkable strength as they make wrenching medical decisions, feel profound social isolation, and struggle to help the charming, desperate kids they dearly love. One parent comments, "I feel as if we are living on an island that no one would ever want to visit."
Shot over nine months, Diagnosis Bipolar follows five families, three of whom have multiple children diagnosed with the illness, as dramas unfold on a daily basis -- from failing at school to complete psychotic breakdown. In addition to intimate interviews, the documentary includes stark home video footage and interviews with experts, including: Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director, the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Dr. Peter Gherardi, child psychiatrist; Dr. Janet Wozniak, director of Pediatric Bipolar Research at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Dr. Ellen Liebenluft, chief of the Pediatric Mood Disorders Unit and the National Institute of Mental Health.
Ranging in age from eight to 15, the children suffer from suicidal impulses, hyper-sexuality, recurring nightmares and violent outbursts. All take new medications that are not FDA-approved for children and have dangerous and unpredictable side effects. But the prognosis for their future - which includes a high rate of suicide, promiscuity, depression and drug use - leaves the parents feeling they have virtually no other options.
Those featured in Diagnosis Bipolar include:
Liv - Twice hospitalized for her aggression and disorientation, Liv, has been monitored by her parents since she was diagnosed as bipolar at age four. Though her mood swings have been tempered by a series of drugs, Liv is still prone to fits and tantrums, as shown when she collapses in the middle of a parking lot. Liv's father ruefully notes the difference between expectation and reality, saying, "When your kid comes out, you count the number of fingers and toes, and you think, 'Healthy - I am done.' They should act a certain way, and then when they don't, naturally you think, 'Well, it must be me.' "
Annie and Casey - Both bipolar and sharing the same birth mother, Annie and Casey were placed with their parents within two years of each other. "There was a lot of mental illness in both families on both sides, so we knew it was kind of risky," says their adoptive mother Maria. "We went for the 'nature versus nurture,' [hoping] that the nurture would kind of win out." It hasn't happened. By the end of the film Annie is hospitalized.
Jessica and Matt - Because of their shared diagnosis, Jessica and Matt's mother is acutely aware of the possibility of outliving her children. "People with bipolar disorder have 26 times the chance of a regular person of dying of suicide," she says. "It [the diagnosis] feels like a potential death sentence. And she'd talk about [killing herself] like it was a normal thing. She was like, 'Oh yeah, I had plans A, B, C and D.' "
Andrew - A profoundly challenged child who has had private tutors since he was four, Andrew's mood swings, from euphoria to despair, have been mitigated by therapy and medication, but by no means cured. His psychiatrist, Dr. Wozniak tells a chilling story of Andrew slashing himself with a razor in her waiting room. Still, there have been signs of progress that his parents find encouraging, and Andrew's mood has stabilized lately, but only through the nearly heroic involvement of his mother, who spends virtually every hour of every day at Andrew's side. "People say to me on a regular basis, 'Andrew is so lucky to have you as a mother,' " she notes. "Andrew's not lucky at all, because if he did not come from a family with generations of rampant devastating psychiatric illnesses, he would be healthy."
Levi, Dana and Asher - All three were diagnosed bipolar in first grade. Levi showed compulsive tendencies, washing his hands until they bled, picking at a wall until it fell apart. Dana, the second child, was impulsive; prone to violent fits, he once climbed the furnace in a manic fit and burned the palms off his hands. Asher, the youngest, whom his father hoped would be "my one perfect child," became suicidal at age seven. They are all being treated with a variety of medications, to varying degrees of success, but with serious side effects. "There's no place to run and hide any more," says their dad. Adds their mom, "What we all want is to make it go away. And you can't."
Diagnosis Bipolar: Five Families Search For Answers was produced and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, whose HBO credits include 2007's "The Adolescent Addict" (part of HBO's award-winning "Addiction" series), 2006's "Plastic Disasters" and 2004's "Jockey," which won an Emmy® for Best Non-Fiction Directing (Davis). Davis also produced, directed and edited the 2002 HBO documentary "Southern Comfort," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, among other awards.
Diagnosis Bipolar: Five Families Search For Answers was directed and produced by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner; co-producer, Nancy Stanton Talcott; music composer, Joel Harrison; filmed by Kate Davis; editors, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.