The Real Problems With Psychiatry

A psychotherapist contends that the DSM, psychiatry's "bible" that defines all mental illness, is not scientific but a product of unscrupulous politics and bureaucracy.
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On May 22, the American Psychiatric Association will release the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. It classifies psychiatric diagnoses and the criteria required to meet them. Gary Greenberg, one of the book's biggest critics, claims these disorders aren't real -- they're invented. Author of Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and contributor to The New Yorker, Mother Jones, The New York Times and other publications, Greenberg is a practicing psychotherapist. The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry is his exposé of the business behind the creation of the new manual.

Can you talk about how the first DSM, published in 1952, was conceived?

One of the reasons was to count people. The first collections of diagnoses were called the "statistical manual," not the "diagnostic and statistical manual." There were also parochial reasons. As the rest of medicine became oriented toward diagnosing illnesses by seeking their causes in biochemistry, in the late 19th, early 20th century, the claim to authority of any medical specialty hinged on its ability to diagnose suffering. To say "okay, your sore throat and fever are strep throat." But psychiatry was unable to do that and was in danger of being discredited. As early as 1886, prominent psychiatrists worried that they would be left behind, or written out of the medical kingdom. For reasons not entirely clear, the government turned to the American Medico-Psychological Association, (later the American Psychiatric Association, or APA), to tell them how many mentally ill people were out there. The APA used it as an opportunity to establish its credibility.

How has the DSM evolved to become seen as the "authoritative medical guide to all of mental suffering"?

The credibility of psychiatry is tied to its nosology. What developed over time is the number of diagnoses, and, more importantly, the method by which diagnostic categories are established.

You're a practicing psychotherapist. Can you define "mental illness"?

No. Nobody can.

It's circular -- thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness.

The DSM lists "disorders." How are disorders different from diseases or illnesses?

The difference between disease and disorder is an attempt on the part of psychiatry to evade the problem they're presented with. Disease is a kind of suffering that's caused by a bio-chemical pathology. Something that can be discovered and targeted with magic bullets. But in many cases our suffering can't be diagnosed that way. Psychiatry was in a crisis in the 1970s over questions like "what is a mental illness?" and "what mental illnesses exist?" One of the first things they did was try to finesse the problem that no mental illness met that definition of a disease. They had yet to identify what the pathogen was, what the disease process consisted of, and how to cure it. So they created a category called "disorder." It's a rhetorical device. It's saying "it's sort of like a disease," but not calling it a disease because all the other doctors will jump down their throats asking, "where's your blood test?" The reason there haven't been any sensible findings tying genetics or any kind of molecular biology to DSM categories is not only that our instruments are crude, but also that the DSM categories aren't real. It's like using a map of the moon to find your way around Russia.

So would you say that these terms -- disorder, disease, illness -- are just different names for the same concept?

I would. Psychiatrists wouldn't. Well, psychiatrists would say it sometimes but wouldn't say it other times. They will say it when it comes to claiming that they belong squarely in the field of medicine. But if you press them and ask if these disorders exist in the same way that cancer and diabetes exist, they'll say no. It's not that there are no biological correlates to any mental suffering -- of course there are. But the specificity and sensitivity that we require to distinguish pneumonia from lung cancer, even that kind of distinction, it just doesn't exist.

What are the most common misconceptions about the scientific nature of diseases such as depression?

I guarantee you that in the course of our conversation a doctor is telling a patient, "you have a chemical imbalance -- that's why you're depressed. Take Prozac." Despite the fact that every doctor who knows anything knows that there is no biochemical imbalance that causes depression, and most doctors understand that a diagnosis of depression doesn't really tell you anything other than what you already knew, that doesn't stop them from saying it.

Research on the brain is still in its infancy. Do you think we will ever know enough about the brain to prove that certain psychiatric diagnoses have a direct biological cause?

I'd be willing to bet everything that whenever it happens, whatever we find out about the brain and mental suffering is not going to map, at all, onto the DSM categories. Let's say we can elucidate the entire structure of a given kind of mental suffering. We're not going to be able to say, "here's Major Depressive Disorder, and here's what it looks like in the brain." If there's any success, it will involve a whole remapping of the terrain of mental disorders. And psychiatry may very likely take very small findings and trump them up into something they aren't. But the most honest outcome would be to go back to the old days and just look at symptoms. They might get good at elucidating the circuitry of fear or anxiety or these kinds of things.

What is the difference between a disorder and distress that is a normal occurrence in our lives?

That distinction is made by a clinician, whether it's a family doctor or a psychiatrist or whoever. But nobody knows exactly how to make that determination. There are no established thresholds. Even if you could imagine how that would work, it would have to be a subjective analysis of the extent to which the person's functioning is impaired. How are you going to measure that? Doctors are supposed to measure "clinical significance." What's that? For many people, the fact that someone shows up in their office is clinical significance. I'm not going to say that's wrong, but it's not scientific. And there's a conflict of interest -- if I don't determine clinical significance, I don't get paid.

You say one of the issues with taking these categories too seriously is that it eliminates the moral aspect behind certain behaviors.

Homosexuality was deleted from the DSM by a referendum. A straight up vote: yes or no

It's our characteristic way of chalking up what we think is "evil" to what we think of as mental disease. Our gut reaction is always "that was really sick. Those guys in Boston -- they were really sick." But how do we know? Unless you decide in advance that anybody who does anything heinous is sick. This society is very wary of using the term "evil." But I firmly believe there is such a thing as evil. It's circular -- thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness. There's a certain kind of comfort in that, but there's no indication for it, particularly because we don't know what mental illness is.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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