Viewpoint: Stop Critiquing the DSM 5

The manual still has merit—but the APA needs to do a better job explaining how DSM 5 captures key facts about human suffering.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Silhouetted profile with pills forming a brain's outline
Getty Images

The newly revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association—DSM 5—has just been released at the Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco.  Not since the critics uniformly declared Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill ‘the worst movie ever made’ long before it actually was shown in a theater has something not yet put out in public gotten such full-throated critical panning. Consider some of the current headlines: “DSM 5: A Manual Run Amok” and my personal favorite, “Psychiatry’s New Diagnostic Manual: “Don’t Buy It. Don’t Use It. Don’t Teach It.

It does not end there. There are also a flood of new books critical of the DSM 5, such as Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry; Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis by Allen Frances; and Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield’s All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders, just to name a few.

(MOREMental Health Researchers Reject Psychiatry’s New Diagnostic Bible)

The critics are going way too far. The DSM is often described as “the bible of the mental health field”—an unfortunate misnomer that leaves it open to attack. It should really be called “The best we know so far about mental disorders” or perhaps “Our best effort to properly classify complicated human behavior.”

But a bigger problem is that the editors don’t know how to defend against the attacks. They keep saying that they are attentive to critics, that the process has been transparent and that they have posted draft versions online. But noting that anyone and everyone could comment on the drafts of DSM 5—and that more than 10,000 comments were received—makes the book sound more like a popularity contest than a scientific endeavor. Perhaps out of fear that the DSM 5 will not be seen as objective, the editors have stumbled in their defense of their work. But that doesn’t mean that a rationale doesn’t exist for what they have done.

The most common criticism is that the book proliferates diseases—kids who throw frequent temper tantrums are now afflicted with ‘Temper Dysregulation Disorder with Dysphoria,’ and those who are bereaved are lumped in with the depressed. Others critics note that Americans are over-medicated already and all DSM 5 does is provide more reasons to prescribe more pills. And some, such as the NIMH director Thomas Insell, argue that trying to lump and cluster symptoms without grounding them to hard causal evidence drawn from genetics and neurology is bound to create categories with no reliability or foundation.

(MORE: Viewpoint: My Case Shows What’s Right—and Wrong—about Psychiatric Diagnoses)

Lets get rid of that last complaint first. The view that the only medical classifications that are valuable are those grounded in molecular biology can be dismissed out of hand. Meteorologists predicting the weather, climate scientists studying global warming, forestry experts, and those dealing with earthquakes do not have coherent explanations in atomic physics for their categories or for their causes. But their categories are accepted because they work—giving us predictable and actionable knowledge about the world. The same ought be the test of DSM 5.

As for proliferating diseases, the DSM 5 is, as critics note, making value judgments. What the editors need to do is embrace that fact, not run away from it in the hope of giving the book the appearance of eternal verity. It is a revision—there is no eternal verity to be had. Classifications, including those in mental health, change over time as our cultures and societies change. Get used to it.

The manual presumes that being an autonomous, self-governing, independently functioning person is a good thing and creating children who can mature this way is also a good thing. But that doesn’t turn the manual into a plot by drug companies and their henchmen to impose a way of life on the rest of us. The capacity to lead one’s life and flourish happens to be a guiding principle in America today and in most parts of the world. Not every culture holds this view, nor has this been a primary value throughout history. But, if grief makes it hard for you to function, then you have a disorder.  If having frequent temper tempers leads other kids and teachers to shun you, then your chance of becoming an independent person capable of social engagement may be diminished. Is it easy to take potshots when what used to be normal or ignored is now categorized as illness. But treating what is ‘normal’ as disease is wrong only if you think acne, rashes, fevers, warts, coldsores, colds, osteoarthritis and dental cavities are just fine too.

Which leads directly to the other main gripe about DSM 5—the overuse of medications. There need not be a connection between a behavior or trait appearing in the DSM 5 and having your doctor write a prescription. If we really want doctors to stop prescribing so much medicine to us and our kids then we should stop asking them to do so, bring direct-to-consumer advertising to an abrupt halt, slap a steep co-pay on elective drug use and start paying doctors to talk to us instead of drugging us.

The DSM 5 is not without flaws—it’s not yet linked to emerging research on genetics and neurology, for one. But the APA and the manual’s authors need to do a better job of explaining why it still has merit in that it captures key facts about human suffering, shows enough utility to be used by many professionals and patient from diverse background, and provides help to those who cannot function in a complex and rapidly evolving world. The mentally ill and the rest of us deserve it.

kalensar 1 Like

Arthur, your authoritarian outlook for classifying temper tantrums of kids as a disorder is antithetical to being a self-governing adult.

 More than two weeks for grieving over the loss of a loved one is considered a disorder? Really!?

This reads more like a manual for being top slave-driver. 


" If I write a bit of bumf in this book , I will get my name published " .


Useful comments, except from the idea that criticism should be silenced, but would love to hear your comments about "cultural and religious practices". DSM5 (in the DID chapter) states that these can be contra-indicators to the diagnosis of a disruption as a disorder. How do psychiatrists possess the expertise in these areas if they don't work with other academic disciplines? The bibliography Spiegel produced was derisory in non-psychiatric terms.

Similarly, it would be good to see some championing of the de-colonializing implications. The APA should be proud of these and should make some more noise about positive developments such as this which are currently slipping under the radar.


"If we really want doctors to stop prescribing so much medicine to us and our kids then we should stop asking them to do so," Right, like the people who had their baby taken away from them because they wanted a second opinion before major surgery at a hospital that already botched things

My son needs therapy. yet we are terrified that when we seek it, we will get one of those 15-min-per-session doctors that adjust (increase) medication until things "get better" and that if we refuse it, we will be treated like christian scientists refusing to give a cancer kid timely chemo. It's darned if you don't, darned if you do. 

Norm 1 Like

Mr. Caplan, FYI, meteorlogists predicting the weather, climate scientist studying global warming, etc. ALL have coherent explanations traceable back to atomics physics for their categories and their causes.  Only the medical specialty known as psychiatry has little or no traceability back to physical evidence, a trait it shares with all other pseudocsciences, quack cures, and get-rich-quick schemes.  The DSM V makes up diseases so that drugs may be sold.  Psychiatrisats have no interest in raising autonomous, self-governing, independently functioning persons, only drug-dependent, anxious ones.  Let's stop calling normal human behavior and feelings a disease, and stop pushing drug on children.



"elective drug use" -- how does that differ from non-elective drug use?

FuzzyPotato 1 Like

Stop critiquing?  I'm sorry, that's the most pathetic thing ever said.  Without commenting on the value of said document, things that are published or release - anything - will be critiqued.  That's just the nature of the beast.  Welcome to humanity.

Tom55 1 Like

agreed, case of the emperor having no clothes

splash 1 Like

psychiatry/psychology is a pseudo science that is akin to alchemy of the bygone era.