News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Are Psychiatrists Inventing Mental Illnesses to Feed Americans More Pills?

Mental health professionals say new diagnoses will lead to overmedication.

 Anyone who’s ever tried to get reimbursed by a health insurance company after seeing a psychiatrist or psychotherapist, or taking a child or teenager to one, has no doubt noticed the incomprehensible numbers that appear on the clinician’s statement, perhaps preceding some slightly less imponderable phrase.

Maybe you are a 296.22 (major depressive disorder, single episode, mild) or a 300.00 (anxiety disorder NOS–not otherwise specified). Hopefully, you are not a 301.83 (borderline personality disorder). Your kid might be a 313.81 (oppositional defiant disorder) or, more likely, a 314.01 (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type).

Since 1952, a tome called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM has been  reducing to a few digits the psychological malady said to afflict a patient. This bible of mental health treatment, published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), provides a list and description of every mental health condition known to—or invented by—psychiatry, from histrionic personality disorder (301.50) to transvestic fetishism (302.3).

Over the decades, the manual, adapted from a guide for mental diseases developed by Army and Navy psychiatrists, has ballooned. The number of listed disorders tripled to nearly 300. A few have been discredited and dumped along the way. Most famous were battles over the inclusion of homosexuality. Successive iterations of the manual listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” then modified that to describe a more limited “sexual orientation disturbance” among people who were “in conflict with” their attraction to people of the same sex. That was later replaced by a disorder called “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” applied to those whose homosexual arousal was a source of distress. That item was dropped in the DSM-III-R, published in 1987.

The great book’s coming edition, the DSM-5, is slated for publication in May 2013. As the task force producing it has posted drafts on its  website, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction has exploded into a full-scale revolt by members of U.S. and British psychological and counseling organizations. The chief complaint is that the newest version will lower the criteria needed to diagnose some conditions, creating “subthreshold” disorders, and generally making it easier for healthcare professionals to label a person with a psychiatric disorder and medicate him or her.

The latest rebellion against the DSM-5 began with a salvo from across the Atlantic. In June, a special committee of the British Psychological Society complained in  a letter to the APA that “clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalisation of their natural and normal responses to their experiences.” The committee criticized the proposed creation of an “attenuated psychosis syndrome”—a sort of poor-man’s psychosis with less severe symptoms—“as an opportunity to stigmatize eccentric people.” They also objected to a proposed reduction in the number of symptoms needed to diagnose adolescents with attention deficit disorder (ADD) because it might increase diagnoses and the use of meds.

Then David Elkins, professor emeritus at Pepperdine University and president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association, formed a committee to discuss similar objections and draft a petition enumerating them. In October, he posted the petition online. “I figured we’d get a couple hundred signatures,’’ Elkins said.

The response stunned him and his colleagues. The petition attracted more than 6,000 signatures in three weeks; as of mid-December it had topped 9,300 signatories and garnered the endorsement of 35 organizations. On Nov. 8, American Counseling Association president Don Locke jumped in with  a letter to the APA objecting to the “incomplete or insufficient empirical evidence” underlying the proposed revisions and expressing “uncertainty about the quality and credibility” of the DSM-5 .

See more stories tagged with: