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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.