May 6, 2013—this article originally appeared in Scientific American
What is mental illness? Schizophrenia? Autism? Bipolar disorder? Depression? Since the 1950s, the profession of psychiatry has attempted to provide definitive answers to these questions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Often called The Bible of psychiatry, the DSM serves as the ultimate authority for diagnosis, treatment and insurance coverage of mental illness.
Now, in a move sure to rock psychiatry, psychology and other fields that address mental illness, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health has announced that the federal agency–which provides grants for research on mental illness–will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” Thomas Insel’s statement comes just weeks before the scheduled publication of the DSM-V, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Insel writes:
“While DSM has been described as a ‘Bible’ for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been ‘reliability’–each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.
In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.