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
We have become a pill popping society. It makes absolutely no sense that twenty percent of our population regularly uses a psychotropic medicine and that the United States has more deaths each year from overdose with prescription drugs than from street drugs.
The causes of excessive medication use are numerous- the diagnostic system is too loose; some doctors are trigger happy in their prescribing habits; the drug companies have sold a misleading bill of goods that all life’s problems are mental disorders requiring a pill solution; and the insurance companies make the mistake of encouraging quick diagnosis on the first visit.
My purpose here is to advise individuals on how best to deal with the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
Elsewhere I have suggested the things government needs to do. A diagnosis, if accurate, can be the turning point to a much better life. A diagnosis, if inaccurate, can haunt you (perhaps for life) with unnecessary treatments and stigma.
Spend at least as much effort ensuring you have the right diagnosis as you would in buying a house. Become a fully informed consumer, ask lots of questions, and expect clear and convincing answers from any clinician who offers a diagnosis and recommends a treatment. If the diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit, get second or third opinions.
Never accept medication after receiving only a brief diagnostic evaluation, especially if it has been done by a primary care physician who may not be expert in psychiatry and may be too influenced by drug salesmen.
Don’t believe drug company advertisements that end with, ‘Ask your doctor.’ Drug companies profit if they can convince you that you have a psychiatric disorder and need medication. They portray the expectable problems of everyday life as mental illnesses due to a chemical imbalance because this sells pills and makes money- not to help you.
In a few weeks, the American Psychiatric Association will release its new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This volume will tweak several current diagnostic categories, from autism spectrum disorders to mood disorders. While many of these changes have been contentious, the final product involves mostly modest alterations of the previous edition, based on new insights emerging from research since 1990 when DSM-IV was published. Sometimes this research recommended new categories (e.g., mood dysregulation disorder) or that previous categories could be dropped (e.g., Asperger’s syndrome).1
The goal of this new manual, as with all previous editions, is to provide a common language for describing psychopathology. While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.
Many readers of my previous blog listing the 10 worst suggestions in DSM 5 were shocked that I failed to mention an 11th dangerous mistake — that DSM-5 will harm people who are medically ill by mislabeling their medical problems as mental disorder. They are absolutely right. I apologize for my previous failure to attend to this danger and hope it is not now too late to influence the process.
Adding to the woes of the medically ill could be one of the biggest problems caused by DSM-5. It will do this in two ways: 1) by encouraging a quick jump to the erroneous conclusion that someone’s physical symptoms are ‘all in the head’; and 2) by mislabeling as mental disorders what are really just the normal emotional reactions that people understandably have in response to a medical illness.
UK health advocate, Suzy Chapman, has closely monitored every step in the development of DSM-5. Her website is the best available resource for finding just about everything you need to know about DSM-5 and ICD-11. Ms Chapman sent me a troubling email that summarizes where DSM-5 has gone wrong and the many harmful consequences that will follow. More details are available at: ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder could capture millions more under mental health diagnosis’ (http://wp.me/pKrrB-29B )
Ms Chapman writes:
…The DSM-5 Somatic Symptom Disorders Work Group is planning to eliminate several little used DSM-IV Somatoform Disorders and replace them instead with an extremely broad new category that is likely to be wildly overused (‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ — SSD).
This is the saddest moment in my 45 year career of studying, practicing, and teaching psychiatry.
The Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association has given its final approval to a deeply flawed DSM 5 containing many changes that seem clearly unsafe and scientifically unsound. My best advice to clinicians, to the press, and to the general public – be skeptical and don’t follow DSM 5 blindly down a road likely to lead to massive over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication.
Just ignore the ten changes that make no sense.
Brief background. DSM 5 got off to a bad start and was never able to establish sure footing. Its leaders initially articulated a premature and unrealizable goal- to produce a paradigm shift in psychiatry. Excessive ambition combined with disorganized execution led inevitably to many ill conceived and risky proposals.
These were vigorously opposed. More than fifty mental health professional associations petitioned for an outside review of DSM 5 to provide an independent judgment of its supporting evidence and to evaluate the balance between its risks and benefits. Professional journals, the press, and the public also weighed in- expressing widespread astonishment about decisions that sometimes seemed not only to lack scientific support but also to defy common sense.
DSM 5 has neither been able to self correct nor willing to heed the advice of outsiders. It has instead created a mostly closed shop- circling the wagons and deaf to the repeated and widespread warnings that it would lead to massive misdiagnosis. Fortunately, some of its most egregiously risky and unsupportable proposals were eventually dropped under great external pressure (most notably ‘psychosis risk’, mixed anxiety/depression, internet and sex addiction, rape as a mental disorder, ‘hebephilia’, cumbersome personality ratings, and sharply lowered thresholds for many existing disorders). But APA stubbornly refused to sponsor any independent review and has given final approval to the ten reckless and untested ideas that are summarized below.
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.
Sigh of relief. The DSM 5 website announced recently that two of its most controversial proposals have finally been dropped. We have dodged bullets on Psychosis Risk and Mixed Anxiety Depression. Both are now definitively rejected as official DSM 5 diagnoses and instead are being exiled to the appendix. And one other piece of good news-the criteria set for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder has been tightened (not enough, but every little bit helps).
The world is a safer place now that ‘Psychosis Risk’ will not be in DSM 5. Its rejection saves our kids from the risk of unnecessary exposure to antipsychotic drugs (with their side effects of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and shortened life expectancy). ‘Psychosis Risk’ was the single worst DSM 5 proposal—we should all be grateful that DSM 5 has finally come to its senses in dropping it.
For a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late ’90s, I had Asperger syndrome.
There’s an educational video from that time, called “Understanding Asperger’s,” in which I appear. I am the affected 20-year-old in the wannabe-hipster vintage polo shirt talking about how keen his understanding of literature is and how misunderstood he was in fifth grade. The film was a research project directed by my mother, a psychology professor and Asperger specialist, and another expert in her department. It presents me as a young man living a full, meaningful life, despite his mental abnormality.
“Understanding Asperger’s” was no act of fraud. Both my mother and her colleague believed I met the diagnostic criteria laid out in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. The manual, still the authoritative text for American therapists, hospitals and insurers, listed the symptoms exhibited by people with Asperger disorder, and, when I was 17, I was judged to fit the bill.
I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).
DSM 5 has suddenly become a star press attraction. In just the last three weeks, more than 100 news stories featuring DSM 5 appeared in major media outlets located in more than a dozen countries. (For a representative sample see Suzy Chapman’s post on Dx Revision Watch.) The explosion of interest started with a flurry when The New York Times published two long DSM 5 articles and three DSM-5-related op-ed pieces, all within a few days. An unrelated press conference in London then generated a widely distributed Reuters story and also many independent pieces. Several other reporters had also been working on their own DSM 5 stories that just happened to arrive at the same time.
The intense press scrutiny of DSM 5 is really just beginning. I know of at least 10 additional reporters who are preparing their work now for publication in the near future. And many of the journalists whose articles appeared during these last few weeks intend to stay on this story for the duration — at least until DSM 5 is published, and probably beyond. They understand that DSM 5 is a document of great individual and societal consequence — and that its impact and risks need a thorough public airing.
The press coverage has been almost uniformly and devastatingly negative. The two most common themes are 1) DSM 5 will radically expand the boundaries of psychiatry, medicalising normality and leading to unneeded and harmful treatment; and 2) DSM 5 decisions are being made arbitrarily, based on narrow input and lacking sufficient scientific support. The DSM 5 proposals that have elicited the most concern are changes in the definition of autism and the expansion of major depressive disorder to capture much of normal grief.
The articles sometimes contain small inaccuracies and sometimes emphasize peripheral issues. And the most dangerous DSM 5 proposals get far too little mention. I will discuss in later blogs how DSM 5 will worsen the over-diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder and the over-prescription of antipsychotic mediation. But the press has gotten the main points just right and somehow manages to see the risks of DSM 5 much more clearly than do the people working on it.