The subjective nature of psychiatric diagnosis

Medicalising natural and normal responses to life experiences is a dangerous game.

This may be the year that makes you mad. A new psychiatrist’s bible will be published in May and already it’s mired in controversy. Many see it as a pretext for scandalous over-diagnosis and drug-pushing.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, has enormous influence in shaping the way mental health research is carried out worldwide. It was first published in 1952 and the most recent edition appeared in 2000. It has taken over 12 years to agree on the contents of the fifth edition, DSM5.

One problem that people have with DSM5is that it will be oldfashioned: it will make no attempt to link behaviour or feelings to what is known about the physical states of the brain, in an era when neuroscience has made enormous advances in relating physiological issues with behavioural issues.

Take grief. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that grieving people have higher activity in various regions of the brain, including the cerebellum and the posterior brainstem. We’ve all seen the results of this in ourselves or others: low mood, low motivation, loss of appetite.

Here’s the next problem: DSM5 will make it easier to medicalise natural human experience. After the new manual is published, psychiatrists will be able to diagnose people who have had two continuous weeks of this as suffering from depression, even if they are recently bereaved. What was normal behaviour last year will become a medical crisis.

The British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association are among the mental health organisations that have raised concerns about such moves. Medicalising natural and normal responses to life experiences is a dangerous game. So far, more than 14,000 people have signed an open letter to the team drafting DSM5, expressing concern about some of the proposed changes “that have no basis in the scientific literature”. The letter argues that the changes “pose substantial risks to patients/clients, practitioners and the mental health professions in general”.

The pharma says

Particularly vulnerable, they argue, are children and the elderly. That’s because they are most at risk of having pharmaceutical solutions – many of which can have severe adverse side effects – foisted on them. And there’ll be more people and more conditions for which to prescribe drugs. DSM5 will lower the threshold of what it takes to get diagnosed with a disorder and will offer some new disorders, such as “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder”, a diagnosis for children who exhibit temper tantrums and get upset out of proportion to a situation.

Each positive diagnosis will be a candidate for drug treatment, which makes it particularly worrying that a study published in March last year identified strong ties between the pharmaceutical industry and those drafting DSM5.

The subjective nature of the psychiatric diagnosis has always been a problem. Freud knew this but his 1895 attempt at a “project for a scientific psychology” failed miserably. Back then, science had told us very little about the physiology and function of the brain. In 2013, it has revealed a lot more but there are still far too many gaps to claim that subjective analysis is redundant. Neuroscience is advancing fast; let’s hope we won’t need DSM6.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

The new psychiatrist's bible is seen by many as a pretext for drug-pushing. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.