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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

DSM-5 Article: The Social Construction of Diagnoses?

by John Gavazzi, PsyD, ABPP
Ethics Chair

While some may want to think that psychiatric diagnoses are objective categories that truly reflect an individual's mental, emotional, and physiological condition, there are others who view diagnoses as value-laden, socially constructed concepts that may not be the most useful tools in understanding and treating the patients with whom we work.

There is an interesting article from the Seattle Times sheds light on the social construction of DSM-V diagnoses: Key Diagnostic Deadline Draws Near for Psychiatrists and "New" DSM conditions.  Here are some highlights:

But molecular tests and brain scans based on those discoveries aren't yet ready for diagnostic use, and that leaves the authors of the upcoming book with the same problem that vexed their predecessors: how to distinguish a mental illness from the rainbow of normal human behavior.

Much of the discussion at the American Psychiatric Association meeting centered on fears that, without solid scientific evidence, additions or deletions in their new bible of mental health could do more harm than good.

"The brain is so darn complicated," said Dr. David Axelson, director of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Services program at the Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh.

As with each edition, the controversies dogging DSM-5 center on the proposed "new" conditions. Among the questions:
Is there a distinct mood disorder that occurs in some women before their periods?
Is hoarding a brain-based illness?
Can the sorrow accompanying bereavement swell into a certifiable mental disorder?

Even when concepts are not at issue, nomenclature sometimes is. Suggestions include replacing the word "anxiety" with "worry," and scrapping the terms "addiction," "dependence" and "substance abuse" in favor of "substance-use disorder."

"We have to be very careful about our choice of language and precise criteria," said Dr. David J. Kupfer, the DSM-5 task force chairman and director of research at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Slight word changes could translate into making a disorder much more prevalent — or much more rare, he said.

In another room, doctors debated whether a patient must have impaired function — such as problems in personal relationships — to qualify as having a mental disorder. "If your life is humming along just fine despite gambling 30 hours a week, do you really have a gambling addiction?" one psychiatrist asked with a note of exasperation in his voice.

Yes, a colleague responded: "The person just doesn't know he has a problem yet."

The reader can draw his or her own conclusions from the article.  For me, it is difficult to see how DSM-V can be taken too seriously as an empirically-based reference book.