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Preventive Psychiatry Can Be Bad for Our Health

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Preventive psychiatry may someday be of significant service in reducing the burden of human suffering -- but only if it can be done really well. And the sad truth is that we don't yet have the necessary tools. More people will be harmed than helped if psychiatry stretches itself prematurely to do what is currently well beyond its reach. That's what is so scary about the unrealistic prevention ambitions of DSM-5, the new manual of mental disorders now in preparation and set to become official in 2013. DSM-5 proposes a radical redefinition of the boundaries of psychiatry, giving it the impossible role of identifying and treating mental disorders in their nascent stages before they have fully declared themselves. Tens of millions of people now deemed normal would suddenly be relabeled mentally disordered and subjected to stigma and considerable risks consequent to inappropriate treatment.

The model fueling the premature DSM-5 hopes for preventive psychiatry has been borrowed from general medicine. In recent decades, the threshold for defining illness has been progressively lowered. Medication is now given for blood pressures or blood sugars, for cholesterols or for levels of bone density that were previously considered well within normal limits. Preventive tests for breast and prostate cancer have been used widely for early detection leading to proactive surgical interventions.

It is ironic that psychiatry wants to jump on this bandwagon just when some of its seeming promise is fading -- many previously-ballyhooed preventive medical and surgical procedures are losing their luster. As good as early intervention sounds in theory, in practice the gains afforded by preventive medication often don't compensate for side effects. And preventive testing may result in more complications than benefits. The once highly-recommended routine testing for early prostate cancer has been abandoned because it is useless in saving lives and promotes unnecessarily-invasive treatments. And routine mammogram testing is now being restricted to a much narrower age range and offered at much less frequent intervals. If the blush is somewhat off preventive medicine, how much more caution is warranted in psychiatry, where the preventive efforts are much less feasible and the possible harm often greater?

All this said, there is no denying the seductive appeal and optimism generated by the prevention model. The storyline is that we can and should identify people destined to have mental disorders early in their course -- before symptoms can cause grave distress or impairment. Then, we can intervene early with effective measures that may completely prevent the later development of their symptoms or at least reduce the total lifetime burden of illness. Once people actually get clearly sick, so the argument goes, their brains may be further damaged by the illness, their lives ruined by the secondary effects of having symptoms, and treatments may become less effective. So the secret is to strike before the iron is hot. Preventing symptoms early sounds a lot easier and more efficient than curing them later.

DSM-5 has suggested a number of new disorders intended to initiate the brave new world of early identification and preventive psychiatry. Psychosis risk is the putative prodrome of schizophrenia, minor neurocognitive is the prelude of dementia,and mixed anxiety/depression presages more clearly defined mood and anxiety disorders. DSM-5 would also dramatically reduce the thresholds of existing disorders, turning just two weeks of grief into major depression, normal distractability into attention deficit and the worries of every life into generalized anxiety disorder.

It simply won't work, in my opinion. Three unavoidable preconditions must all be met before it will make any sense to so dramatically lower diagnostic thresholds in the service of preventive psychiatry. None of these can remotely be achieved, now or for the foreseeable future. First, the patients identified as prodromal must be at considerable risk of actually going on to develop the full-blown disorder. Predicting this precisely enough is currently completely impossible. For every new true "patient" identified correctly as really being at risk, there will be very many who will not progress and would do just fine if instead left to their own devices. Secondly, the preventive interventions must be effective. This has not been documented for any of the DSM 5 candidates. Antipsychotics given before disease onset don't prevent schizophrenia, cholinesterase inhibitors don't prevent dementia and time and placebo effect are by themselves so effective in curing many milder conditions that nothing else is necessary. Finally, the prevention must be safe -- clearly not the case when most of the currently available real world interventions will consist of medications that have appreciable side effects and risky complications.

The risk/benefit ratio for treating the traditional and clearcut psychiatric disorders is extremely favorable. Most patients experience appreciable benefit and some are totally cured -- so the risks that accompany any effective treatment are well worth taking. And once a psychiatric disorder does clearly declare itself, every effort should be made to treat it promptly, thoroughly and for however long it takes. The longer a disorder is allowed to fester or linger, the more impairing it is and more difficult to treat.

But the risk/benefit ratio for the preventive treatment of the proposed pseudo-patients defined by the new DSM-5 proposals tilts badly in the opposite direction -- the risks remain just as high and are certainly not worth taking because the benefits are so minimal. The way things add up now is therefore crystal clear. All the possible benefits of preventive psychiatry are unproven and theoretical and off somewhere in the distant future. In contrast, the grave risks are already with us -- children are currently getting way too much harmful medication given carelessly for very questionable indications.

And the risk/benefit ratio looks even worse when we consider who will be doing most of the preventive treatment of the new conditions suggested in DSM-5. Recent CDC statistics show that the overwhelming majority of prescriptions for psychiatric drugs are not written by psychiatrists and that most people taking psychotropic medication are never seen by any mental health professional. So although it would be psychiatry introducing the new DSM-5 diagnoses to be used in preventive psychiatry, it will be non-psychiatric physicians who will be assessing most of the patients and providing most of the treatment. Their decisions usually follow 7-minute visits and often reflect only limited training in psychiatric diagnosis and a casual acquaintance with the proper use of psychiatric medicine. Preventive psychiatry is a bad idea in the best of hands, it can be a menace in the worst -- an additional excuse for furthering the current practice of wanton overmedication.

Will preventive treatment at least be unsullied by crass commercial interests? Hell no. I know the people preparing DSM-5 and have complete confidence in their sincerity -- they are suggesting what I consider to be dangerous changes in the diagnostic system, but for the best intentioned reasons having nothing to do with shilling for drug companies. But the purity of their intentions won't stop Big Pharma from licking its chops and aggressively exploiting the vast new markets opened by DSM-5. There are always many more potential customers with very mild illness (or no illness at all, suffering from just plain human unhappiness) than there are people with clearcut psychiatric disorders. My last piece warned that our country is already plagued by loose overdiagnosis and careless overtreatment. This has been tirelessly driven by ubiquitous drug company marketing -- peddling psychiatric ills in order to help sell their overly-hyped and overpriced pills. Everyday distress transformed into mental disorder is a marketing dream come true.

What is the bottom line? While preventive psychiatry may eventually be the next great advance in our field, it is at least a decade away (and perhaps several decades). We will first need to develop accurate biological tests that require a much deeper understanding of mental disorder than is currently possible and also preventive treatments that are effective and safe. Because the premature new diagnoses introduced by DSM-5 would all cause more harm than good, they should be dropped before the manual becomes official. Preventive psychiatry is the wave of the future, but would be the bane of the present.

Allen Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University and was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force.

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