Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Saving Normal


Allan Frances chaired the APA task force that created DSM-IV. On Monday, he had an editorial in the Los Angeles Times called "It's Not Too Late to Save Normal."

Dr. Frances writes:

The first draft of the next edition of the DSM, posted for comment with much fanfare last month, is filled with suggestions that would multiply our mistakes and extend the reach of psychiatry dramatically deeper into the ever-shrinking domain of the normal. This wholesale medical imperialization of normality could potentially create tens of millions of innocent bystanders who would be mislabeled as having a mental disorder. The pharmaceutical industry would have a field day -- despite the lack of solid evidence of any effective treatments for these newly proposed diagnoses.

The manual, prepared by the American Psychiatric Assn., is psychiatry's only official way of deciding who has a "mental disorder" and who is "normal." The quotes are necessary because this distinction is very hard to make at the fuzzy boundary between the two. If requirements for diagnosing a mental disorder are too stringent, some who need help will be left out; but if they are too loose, normal people will receive unnecessary, expensive and sometimes quite harmful treatment.

Okay, I have a confession to make here: I don't keep a copy of the DSM in my office. I own an edition which I've opened a couple of times while writing our book. I don't care what the precise diagnostic criteria are: mostly I know them, but I'm left with the fact that if you wander into my office saying you're tormented and suffering or having trouble functioning, I'm going to treat you. And if I prescribe medications, it's mostly based on symptoms. Totally? No, because if there's history of mania (I know those symptoms) or any sense that the diagnosis might be bipolar disorder, I'm going to go pretty gently with the antidepressants, just because I've notice that people with tendencies towards mood instability (whether or not it meets criteria for full mania) do better if the antidepressants are kept to a minimum. I hear we over-diagnose, but I'm going to comment that absolutely no one has ever come to see me for simple, uncomplicated grief or a normal reaction to a stressor-- people just don't define this (and let's hope it stays that way) as a reason to run to a psychiatrist. And everyone's favorite diagnostic complaint: Shyness vs. Social Anxiety Disorder. 18 years of practice and how many patients have come with a chief complaint of isolated social anxiety? Zero. And how many patients in my practice carry the diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder? Zero. Over-diagnosis of mood and anxiety disorders in general? Of course-- maybe we're treating people who previously would have just suffered. Or maybe we're forced to assign a reimbursable diagnosis because V Codes (phase of life and relational disorders) can't be reimbursed. It all gets to be circular reasoning.

So who's placing bets on whether I purchase the DSM-V?