The piece discusses how the chief editors of two previous version of the manual, Robert Spitzer and Allen Frances – who edited the DSM-III and DSM-IV, have heavily criticised the proposed new manual for lack of transparency in development (non-disclosure agreements are required) and for ever-widening categories.
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 best seller in the bargain, by claiming to be only provisional.
My only gripe with the article is it seems a little star-struck by the idea that mental illness could be validated or even wholly defined by reference to neuroscience, which is a huge category error.
How would we know which aspects of neuroscience to investigate? Clearly, the ones associated with distress and impairment – mental and behavioural concepts that can’t be completely substituted by facts about the function of neurons and neurotransmitters.
That’s not to say that neuroscience isn’t important, essential even, but we can’t define disability purely on a biological basis.
It would be like trying to define poverty purely on how much money you had, without reference to quality of life. We need to know what different amounts of money can do for the people in their real-life situations. Earning $5 a day is not the same in New York and Papua New Guinea.
Not even physical medicine pretends to have completely objective diagnoses, as, by definition, a disorder is defined by the impact it has.
An infectious disease is not solely defined by whether we have certain bacteria or not. First, it must be established that those bacteria cause us problems.
The urge to try and define all mental illnesses in terms of neuroscience is, ironically, more an emotional reaction to criticisms about psychiatry’s vagueness than an achievable scientific aim.
Link to article ‘Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness’.