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The subjective nature of psychiatric diagnosis

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

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

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)