THE BLOG
02/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do You Suffer From Political Apathy Disorder?

If you're like most people, you're still slightly giddy and invigorated by the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President. You followed with interest the long, contentious primary process, avidly watched the presidential debates, perhaps even worked in one of the campaigns. And, in concert with record numbers of your fellow citizens, you voted.

Or, perhaps, didn't. Didn't follow the campaigns, didn't study the issues, didn't watch the returns on Election night. In fact, it may be that you're fairly uninterested overall in the fate of the nation, or even the world.

Which means...what, exactly? Well, according to an article in The Journal of the Association for Humanistic Psychology of a few years back, it may mean you're suffering from a mental illness. The article's author, Geoffy D. White, proposed calling this new condition Political Apathy Disorder, whose essential feature is "a pervasive pattern of failing to help reduce human suffering in the world, combined with overconsumption of the society's limited resources."

I thought of this proposed new diagnostic category recently when reading about the panel of eminent psychiatrists who've begun the laborious process of updating the clinical manual used by virtually all mental health professionals. Called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM, for short), it's the Bible of diagnostic categories, the ultimate reference from which to assign a clinical diagnosis. The current edition, published in 2000, describes 283 disorders. The next edition, DSM-V, due out in about three years, will probably contain even more.

Will Political Apathy Disorder make the cut? At this point, it's hard to say. As Edward Shorter, a leading historian of psychiatry (and critic of the manual) was quoted recently in the New York Times, "In psychiatry no one knows the causes of anything, so classification can be driven by all sorts of factors." Meaning, the cultural climate, financial considerations, trends in the mental health field, etc.

But let's cut to the chase: Do you suffer from Political Apathy Disorder? According to White's proposal, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" -- if you meet at least four of the following criteria: you fail to consider the effect on others when making a purchase; are not involved in political organizations; buy a new home when your current one is satisfactory; are not informed from diverse points of view; express concern about social ills but take no action; base your self-worth on financial worth; boast about what you own or plan to buy; or, lastly, engage in elitist activity (which includes living in a gated community, trying to get out of jury duty, and neglecting to vote in elections).

Believe me, I wish I were making this up. True, refusing to vote may be irresponsible. Or a shirking of your duties as a citizen. But evidence of mental illness?

My concern here is with this growing trend of assigning diagnostic labels to literally the whole spectrum of human behaviors. For example, we've spent the past two decades diagnosing an ever-increasing number of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. However, according to a recent Time magazine story, even the ADHD label has become passe. Nowadays, the fastest-growing diagnosis for kids is bipolar disorder. (Which means, I suppose, that screenwriters and rock stars will just have to find a new one.)

What's next? Will we soon be labeling "difficult" children as sociopaths, because they can't empathize with another kid who took their toy? Or don't show sufficient remorse for licking the icing off their brother's birthday cake?

As for the DSM itself, it's starting to resemble every other publishing phenomenon, from Harry Potter to Chicken Soup for the Soul. A lot of fanfare accompanies each new edition, which invariably boasts new and improved diagnostic categories. (Including one of my favorites, Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting we throw out the whole system of categorization. But truth be told, diagnostic labels exist for the convenience of the labelers. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with convenience. Nor with a common language that enables all us clinical geniuses to talk with one another.

But it does beg the question: is there no trait, behavior or private thought that is undiagnosable?

In our haste to understand the human condition, are we in a similar rush to plane off all the edges, quantify all the quirks, reduce all the prejudices and contradictions that make up an individual's personality to a set of differential criteria?

This isn't a rhetorical question. I really wonder about it. As I wonder about a lot of things. So much so, in fact, that it might indicate the need for a new diagnostic category: Pervasive Wondering Disorder.

I can imagine others: Excessive Daydreaming Disorder. Insufficient Outrage about Lindsay Lohan Disorder. Or how about Unwarranted Belief in Diagnostic Labels Disorder. Bet they won't put that in the manual.

But, really, where will all this labeling end? (A question, no doubt, symptomatic of Apocalyptic Obsessional Disorder.)

Or am I making too much of the issue? (Reflexive Self-Invalidating Disorder, with Mixed Emotional Features.)

See what I mean? That's the trouble with labeling. Once you get started, it's very hard to stop.

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