There’s been a lot of noise lately about how awful the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association is going to be. Virtually none of this drive-by criticism appears to be the least bit informed as to the goals of the DSM-V, much less the process by which it has been developed.
A recent critical article: Why Many Mental Health Professionals Are Ditching the DSM-V ‘Bible’. There are SO many problems with this article, yet most will completely elude detection by readers.
1. The title asserts that “many” MHPs (Mental Health Professionals) are abandoning the DSM-V. Absolutely NO evidence is given for this assertion. A cheap shot, nothing more.
2. The title refers to the DSM as a “Bible”, which it is not. The Bible is considered to be a revelatory document (by believers) or a historical document (by non-believer scholars). The DSM is neither. It’s a data driven, clinically validated, periodically updated classification scheme, and nothing more. That’s all it’s designed to be.
3. “major players in the mental health community say the book needs more research”. Who are these “major players”? The NIMH is mentioned, but that’s now old news, and not immediately relevant, anyway (see #4 below). Unnamed academics from Columbia and Rutgers are also referenced – complaining about the DMS’s lack of epidemiological perspective, and insufficient consideration of ancillary causal factors. As usual, these non-clinician critics want the DSM to be the kind of research review it never was intended to be. It’s for working clinicians, not researchers. It USES research, in several ways, but is NOT a research report, review, or even summary. Once again we see non-clinicians simply failing to understand what we in clinical mental health are actually doing in our work.
4. NIMH director Thomas Insel is paraphrased (correctly, I think) as saying the DSM lacks validity because it classifies disorders solely by their symptoms. Pray tell, what is the alternative? The DSM, in recent iterations, derived from a desire to diagnose not according to theory (for which, by definition, there was little or no formal research support) but according to actual clinical presentation – yes, symptoms. WHAT ELSE DO WE HAVE? This isn’t a mistake, it’s a NECESSITY. We’re playing the only game we actually CAN play, at this point in the evolution of our knowledge of mental illness.
Insel’s project is a research strategy, for an agency with a very strong commitment to basic (i.e., physical science and medical) research. But don’t expect it to answer all questions; it simply can’t
There is a vast amount of research – from studies of morphology in biology to the famed “Minnesota twin studies” in psychology – which supports the idea that what one sees in the real world is about 50% derived from genetic factors and 50% derived from environmental factors. The conceit that any study of genetics+environment will allow us to account for the spectrum of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and most particularly trauma disorders is either phenomenally ill-informed or gratuitously over-optimistic. The further notion that the results of such a effort will properly be considered “medical” presupposes that psychology can be reduced to physiology, at the least. Yeah, and while you’re at it, let’s reduce computer programming to mere electronics. This is sort of “reductionist” logical error one is cautioned about as an undergraduate. Such decomposition of a higher order field to one or more lower order fields has never, to my best knowledge, happened – outside of the realm of theory, not is it ever going to.
For how many decades has the search been unfolding for a “gene for alcoholism”? And the results: still looking…
“Further evidence and an approximate estimate of heritability – crudely speaking how genetic a condition is – can be derived from twin studies that yield figures of 50% for males and 25% for females…” (Ball, D. (2004). “Genetic approaches to alcohol dependence”, The British Journal of Psychiatry
185: 449-451 doi: 10.1192/bjp.185.6.449)
What this should make clear is that “medical” approaches to such things will ever only get us part of the way to our goal. The rest of what it will take has to do with behavior, learning, and a causal model that will contain a number of non-physical factors. And alcoholism is EASY, compared to anxiety, depression, or trauma disorders.
It is fundamentally misguided to think that psychology can be reduced to physiology or medicine. Yet, if awareness of this thinking error is not much in the minds of the general public, it is also significantly lacking in the minds of too many mental health professionals. Insufficient awareness of this error is at the heart of much criticism of professional clinical psychology by non-clinicians outside of the field. They just don’t get it. Clinical work is NOT research any more than research is theory. Different areas of thoughtful activity – different goals – different processes – different rules – different outcomes. So shall it always be.
I appreciate that several rather subtle considerations are touched upon in my remarks above, of necessity. This is ALL about explanatory and prediction strategies, and THAT topic isn’t seriously taken up by most students until graduate school. If this were an easy topic, it’d be covered in high school.
Biology is still actively arguing about species delineation and classification (a fascinating topic, by the way). It’s hardly surprising that we are doing the same in the nosology of mental illness. It’s part of the process by which science improves itself. We’re NOT in trouble; we’re just doing our job.