New Scientist - When doctors disagree with each other, they usually couch their criticisms in careful, measured language. In the past few months, however, open conflict has broken out among the upper echelons of US psychiatry. The focus of discord is a volume called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which psychiatrists turn to when diagnosing the distressed individuals who turn up at their offices seeking help. Regularly referred to as the profession's bible, the DSM is in the midst of a major rewrite, and feelings are running high.
Two eminent retired psychiatrists are warning that the revision process is fatally flawed. They say the new manual, to be known as DSM-V, will extend definitions of mental illnesses so broadly that tens of millions of people will be given unnecessary and risky drugs. Leaders of the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the manual, have shot back, accusing the pair of being motivated by their own financial interests - a charge they deny. . .
Psychiatry suffers in comparison with other areas of medicine, as diseases of the mind are on the whole less well understood than those of the body. We have, as yet, only glimpses into the fundamental causes of the common mental illnesses, and there are no biological tests to diagnose them. This means conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and personality disorders remain difficult to diagnose with precision. Doctors can only question people about their state of mind and observe their behavior, classifying illness according to the most obvious symptoms.
We have only glimpses into the causes of mental illnesses and there are no biological tests for them. . .
The wording used in the DSM has a significance that goes far beyond questions of semantics. The diagnoses it enshrines affect what treatments people receive, and whether health insurers will fund them. They can also exacerbate social stigmas and may even be used to deem an individual such a grave danger to society that they are locked up.
Some of the most acrimonious arguments stem from worries about the pharmaceutical industry's influence over psychiatry. This has led to the spotlight being turned on the financial ties of those in charge of revising the manual, and has made any diagnostic changes that could expand the use of drugs especially controversial. . .
With each revision, the number of conditions it defines has swelled, many surrounded by bewildering lists of symptoms that must be checked to assign a diagnosis. Using current DSM checklists, for example, 114 different combinations of symptoms can lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. At the same time, many patients prove hard to fit into the framework. . .