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Psychiatric Diagnosis And The DSM-5 Controversy

I’ve followed in bits and pieces — sometimes for Shrink Rap, sometimes because the issues fill my email inbox, sometimes because there’s no escape. Oh, and lots of the players have familiar names.

In the December 27th issue of Wired magazine, Gary Greenberg writes a comprehensive article on the debates around the revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) entitled “Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness.” Do read it. Here’s an excerpt:

I recently asked a former president of the APA how he used the DSM in his daily work. He told me his secretary had just asked him for a diagnosis on a patient he’d been seeing for a couple of months so that she could bill the insurance company. “I hadn’t really formulated it,” he told me. He consulted the DSM-IV and concluded that the patient had obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Did it change the way you treated her?” I asked, noting that he’d worked with her for quite a while without naming what she had.

“No.”

“So what would you say was the value of the diagnosis?”

“I got paid.”

As scientific understanding of the brain advances, the APA has found itself caught between paradigms, forced to revise a manual that everyone agrees needs to be fixed but with no obvious way forward. Regier says he’s hopeful that “full understanding of the underlying pathophysiology of mental disorders” will someday establish an “absolute threshold between normality and psychopathology.” Realistically, though, a new manual based entirely on neuroscience—with biomarkers for every diagnosis, grave or mild—seems decades away, and perhaps impossible to achieve at all. To account for mental suffering entirely through neuroscience is probably tantamount to explaining the brain in toto, a task to which our scientific tools may never be matched. As Frances points out, a complete elucidation of the complexities of the brain has so far proven to be an “ever-receding target.”

What the battle over DSM-5 should make clear to all of us — professional and layman alike — is that psychiatric diagnosis will probably always be laden with uncertainty, that the labels doctors give us for our suffering will forever be at least as much the product of negotiations around a conference table as investigations at a lab bench. Regier and Scully are more than willing to acknowledge this. As Scully puts it: “The DSM will always be provisional; that’s the best we can do.” Regier, for his part, says: “The DSM is not biblical. It’s not on stone tablets.”

The real problem is that insurers, juries, and (yes) patients aren’t ready to accept this fact. Nor are psychiatrists ready to lose the authority they derive from seeming to possess scientific certainty about the diseases they treat. After all, the DSM didn’t save the profession and become a bestseller in the bargain by claiming to be only provisional.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*


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