Q:  Responsible for Actions While Manic?

Dear Dr. Phelps,
My daughter suffers from bi-polar illness and is  very responsible about taking care of herself. Recently she just graduated  from a University with two Degrees. However, she was having medication  problems thsi last semester, and was having a mild manic episode while shse was  writing a paper.   Inadvertantly, she forgot to cite something on her  paper. She was brought up  before a Judicairy committee and found guilty. I am  outraged and we supplied  her doctors statement also. We are appealing this  because there was no intent  ever to plagarize. My question is can a person be  held responsible for their  action while having a manic episode. Obviously, I do  not think so but would  appreciate any direction for defense that you can  offer.   There was not one trained doctor present at this  hearing and I am livid.


Hello Lucy -- 
You can imagine the size of the can of worms this question can lead to, i.e. the kinds of things people could use this defense against: murder, robbery, etc.  So while your daughter's case is not at all troubling from society's point of view (only her committee), the implications are.  As I see it, society is not prepared to accept that "bipolar disorder", and being less than one's usual self in some fashion because of it, is an acceptable excuse for legal offenses -- unless one is prepared to offer the awful "not guilty by reason of insanity" defense; i.e. complete admission of "mental illness" and incapacity therefrom.  

A better answer, perhaps, would be simply to say that I am not aware of anything useful with which to help you, I fear.  This is more a legal question than a medical one; or at least philosophical/social.  I haven't had a patient face this circumstance.  I often talk with folks about how to handle disclosing their illness in the work setting -- i.e. whether and how much -- but not quite this circumstance.   

Dr. Phelps

Published June, 2001