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Someday our grandchildren’s grandchildren are going to sitting in college classroom learning about the early 21st century and wonder how a society so seemingly advanced could have such primitive ideas about mental health.They will no doubt be shocked and appalled that our major diagnostic tool for psychiatry is a book full of subjective checklists—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM versions I-IV).

I became all too familiar with the DSM in my college days, first as a psychology major and then as a behavioral science major (I switched because I believed behavioral science would be more scientifically rigorous. It wasn’t.) I was constantly shocked that such an utterly absurd book could be considered our primary mental health tool. The diagnostic criteria is often so vague that it is virtually impossible to determine if a patient truly has a mental disorder. Yet almost every diagnosis in America is made based on comparing a patient against the DSM’s checklist of “symptoms.”

Part of the reason the DSM is so flawed is because it is highly politicized. For example, homosexuality was classified in DSM as a sexual disorder until the 1970s. And until 1987, “ego-dystonic homosexuality” was still classified as a pathology. These “mental disorders” were later removed, not because of a change in empirical data (since there is none) but because of the protest of gay rights groups. I agree with the gay rights activists on this one: homosexuality should have never been classified as a mental disorder. But this example shows that the judgments made by psychiatrists are often highly subjective and are rooted more in speculative theories than in scientific fact. (Keep in mind that this is the same profession that, for almost a century, believed the Freudian idea that holding your feces in as an infant affected your personality as an adult.)

Such criticisms against the DSM have been made for decades (mostly by cranks like me) but they are gaining a new hearing because of who is now making them: Allen Frances, lead editor of the DSV-IV. As Frances says, “there is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s [BS]. I mean, you just can’t define it.” As Wired magazine notes :

Some of this disputatiousness is the hazard of any professional specialty. But when psychiatrists say, as they have during each of these fights, that the success or failure of their efforts could sink the whole profession, they aren’t just scoring rhetorical points. The authority of any doctor depends on their ability to name a patient’s suffering. For patients to accept a diagnosis, they must believe that doctors know—in the same way that physicists know about gravity or biologists about mitosis—that their disease exists and that they have it. But this kind of certainty has eluded psychiatry, and every fight over nomenclature threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the profession by revealing its dirty secret: that for all their confident pronouncements, psychiatrists can’t rigorously differentiate illness from everyday suffering. This is why, as one psychiatrist wrote after the APA voted homosexuality out of the DSM, “there is a terrible sense of shame among psychiatrists, always wanting to show that our diagnoses are as good as the scientific ones used in real medicine.”

Since 1980, when the DSM-III was published, psychiatrists have tried to solve this problem by using what is called descriptive diagnosis: a checklist approach, whereby illnesses are defined wholly by the symptoms patients present. The main virtue of descriptive psychiatry is that it doesn’t rely on unprovable notions about the nature and causes of mental illness, as the Freudian theories behind all those “neuroses” had done. Two doctors who observe a patient carefully and consult the DSM’s criteria lists usually won’t disagree on the diagnosis—something that was embarrassingly common before 1980. But descriptive psychiatry also has a major problem: Its diagnoses are nothing more than groupings of symptoms. If, during a two-week period, you have five of the nine symptoms of depression listed in the DSM, then you have “major depression,” no matter your circumstances or your own perception of your troubles. “No one should be proud that we have a descriptive system,” Frances tells me. “The fact that we do only reveals our limitations.” Instead of curing the profession’s own malady, descriptive psychiatry has just covered it up.

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