The Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C. has once again confronted us with the issues of guns and mental illness, but what we really should address is the inadequacy of mental health care in the United States. Since 2009 there have been 21 mass shootings and the perpetrators in over half of these were suffering from or suspected to have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. (The other killers with no signs of mental illness were ideological zealots, disgruntled employees and disaffected loners.)
After each incident there is a great hue and cry, and calls for action but no substantive action is taken. Our reflexive approach has repeatedly failed to provide care in a timely fashion to individuals in need. As a country, we continue to ignore the growing public health need for greater access and a more proactive approach to mental health care. It is time that we say enough is enough and do something to prevent future tragedies.
When you strip away the hype and politics, the causal factors in these horrific incidents are clear and solvable. Yet we’ve lacked the social and political will to fashion and apply the solution.
The plain truth of the matter is that we do not provide adequate services to the 26% of the U.S. population with mental illness. The scope of and access to mental health services available to most people are limited and fragmented. Moreover, insurance coverage is all too often lacking and discriminatory. Consequently, we do not provide the level and quality of care of which physicians and health care providers are capable. It is the equivalent of knowing that a woman has breast cancer but not offering the indicated treatment options of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The result is that many people go untreated or inadequately treated.
The American Psychiatric Association recently published a new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM-5 is what medical, mental health, and chemical dependency professionals use to diagnose developmental, mental health, substance abuse and dependence, learning, and personality “disorders.” Now in its 5th edition, the DSM was first published in 1952. At that time, the DSM was 129 pages containing 106 diagnoses.
Now, 61 years later, the DSM-5 consists of approximately 950 pages and roughly 375 diagnoses. The DSM-5, while researched far more than previous editions, is based on the medical model or the model of disease. Simply put, the medical model finds the causes of disease and illness and then prescribes a treatment to cure the disease or illness. This means a person has a pathology or pathogen that needs to be treated and cured.
The questions that eat at me during my day as a psychologist and at night as a person searching for answers are:
Is it possible to accurately identify mental health “issues,” “illness,” or “disorders?” versus extreme ranges within the sphere of the human condition?
Even if it is possible to identify these conditions, does it determine the course of “treatment” or “intervention?”
If so, is there a “treatment” for every identified “condition?”
Does it mean there is a treatment that works?
Do you need a diagnosis to get help?
Over the years, many have been critical of this approach to mental “health” issues. Referring to mental “health” is actually a newer name as people have historically been thought to have mental “illness.” This makes more sense for people who are unfortunately compromised by severe conditions termed schizophrenia, bi-polar (manic-depressive), and severe depression and anxiety. But does this make sense for children, adolescents, and adults who are challenged with some other, and possibly less severe, aspect of their functioning and development? Do all human problems warrant a medical or mental health diagnosis? When did a weakness become a “disorder” that requires “intervention” and/or “treatment?”
To be fair, the DSM provided structure and guidelines for approaching the complicated business of determining who had a “problem” that required help. However, it seems things have gone too far. Critics of the DSM believe that this latest edition has taken the business of diagnosing to a new level, one where approximately 50% of the population can be diagnosed with something. Critics also believe that this pathology finding approach supports the continued trend of medication prescribing as the number one mode of treatment, and continued trend of increased health care costs and premiums with increased utilization of individuals who need a “diagnosis” to meet “medical necessity” to receive services. What does that mean? It means if you don’t have a diagnosis, you don’t get help. It means you have to have a problem (pathology) to get help (treatment and intervention).
Without going into detail about some of the changes in the newest edition of the DSM, some diagnostic categories have been added and some diagnosis “thresholds” have been lowered. This means that you need fewer symptoms to “meet diagnostic criteria.” Here are some examples of concerns with the new DSM-5:
Temper tantrums will now be diagnosed as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
Normal forgetting will now be diagnosed as Minor Neurocognitive Disorder
Gluttony will be diagnosed as Binge Eating Disorder
Grief will be diagnosed as Major Depression
First time substance users and college partiers will get a diagnosis of Substance Use Disorder
The lack of specific features, which is the primary issue for GAD, will not be addressed in DSM-5. The hallmark of the condition will remain pathological worry, although it also characterizes other disorders. Likewise, the proposed behavioral diagnostic criteria lack specificity for GAD, and it is not clear how these will be assessed. The proposed changes will lower the diagnostic threshold for GAD in DSM-5… many currently subthreshold cases will qualify for this diagnosis. The likely inclusion of many such “false-positives” will result in an artificial increase in the prevalence of GAD and will have further negative consequences.
The American Psychiatric Association just reported a surprisingly large yearly deficit of $350,000. This was caused by reduced publishing profits, poor attendance at its annual meeting, rapidly declining membership, and wasteful spending on DSM-5. APA reserves are now below ” the recommended amount for a non-profit (reserves equal to a year’s operating expenses).”
APA has already spent an astounding $25 million on DSM-5. I can’t imagine where all that money went. As I recall it, DSM-IV cost about $5 million and more than half of this came from outside research grants. Even if the DSM-5 product were made of gold instead of lead, $25 million would be wildly out of proportion. The rampant disorganization of DSM-5 must have caused colossal waste. One obvious example is the $3 million spent on the useless DSM-5 field trial—with its irrelevant question, poorly conceived design, and embarrassing results.
Because APA is left holding these huge IOU’s, it will be doubly desperate to begin recouping on its misguided investment. The bad financial report will ratchet up the pressure to publish DSM-5 in its current sorry state as scheduled next May—despite the fact that it has badly flunked its own field test and now still requires extensive editing and retesting before being anywhere near fit for use.