Defending Psychiatrists and the DSM

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In Jon Ronson's rather entertaining TEDTalk, he has a little fun at the expense of psychiatrists. That's fair, but let's look at what he says. He asks: "Is it possible that the psychiatric profession has a strong desire to label things that are essential human behavior as a disorder?"

To which I would answer: The psychiatric profession has a strong desire to find a way to help people who are suffering -- and the family members who struggle alongside them. Suffering is, of course, "essential human behavior," but when people are miserable, and suicidal, and dangerous to themselves and others, we have an ethical obligation to try to help them. And to alleviate their suffering, we need to understand it.

In his TEDTalk, Ronson notes that the psychiatrists' diagnostic and statistical manual (the DSM) has grown over the years from a pamphlet to door-stop size, and he wonders out loud whether the expanding list of psychiatric disorders is really just a way to pathologize more and more ordinary behavior. This is not an off-base question, and it is an excellent time to revisit it because the manual is about to get even bigger when the fifth edition is published next month. But our "strong desire to label things" arises from our desire to better understand impairing behavior -- so we can help.

That, you see, is the point of the DSM and all those proliferating disorders.

Psychiatrists make checklists of behaviors and group them into disorders in order to understand them, and to be able to share that understanding with other clinicians and researchers.

Disorders change when our understanding changes, and we see that behaviors that have been grouped together should be separated--as is the case with one of the new disorders, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD). I know that's a mouthful, but it's an important new way to group together children with very severe, frequent tantrums and irritability. Until now many of these children received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but clinicians have seen that not all of them become adults with bipolar disorder. So there may be something different going on here, and the new diagnosis is an effort to add nuance to mental health care -- not generate more patients. These kids are among the most troubled kids we see, and we aren't satisfied with what we've been able to do for them. We need a better way to identify them, as the first step in finding a better way to help them.

By the way, we're not talking about "regular kids" with ordinary tantrums here: We're talking about kids who are uncontrollable and dangerous to themselves and others, kids who, in an earlier era would simply have been locked up. (It is a testament to how far we have come that "out of sight, out of mind" is now anathema.)

These are children so anxious they can barely leave their rooms, for whom going to school is impossible. Kids so prone to violent meltdowns that their parents can't handle them. Kids who are suicidal. -- Dr. Harold Koplewicz

It's true that psychiatric disorders, like many medical illnesses, are often on a spectrum -- a lot of us are a little anxious, or a little depressed, or a little ADHD, or even, as Ronson says, "a little psychopathic." But in the same way that when your blood pressure goes past a certain point on the scale we say you have hypertension, when kids get outside the typical range on scales for things like anxiety, opposition, sadness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, inattention, we say they have a disorder. But not, and this is very important, unless that behavior is causing them serious impairment.

People who think that we psychiatrists are going around gleefully diagnosing ordinary behavior as disordered and giving kids medication like candy aren't really seeing or understanding the children we treat, and the parents who bring them in. These are children so anxious they can barely leave their rooms, for whom going to school is impossible. Kids so prone to violent meltdowns that their parents can't handle them. Kids who are suicidal.

I'd be the last person to say that there's no such thing as misdiagnosis -- just like medical doctors, psychiatrists are sometimes stumped, and sometimes make mistakes. And kids who have a 7-minute visit to the pediatrician and come out with a prescription for ADHD medication are definitely not getting good care.

But I want to make the most important thing here clear: Since we can't yet diagnose mental illness with blood tests or DNA tests, we can only do it by very carefully observing behavior. And those lists of behaviors in the DSM, and other rating scales we use, are tools to help us look at behavior as objectively as possible, to find the patterns and connections that can lead to better understanding and better treatment.

There will always be some ordinary, perfectly healthy people who fit some of the criteria for a disorder -- or many disorders, as Ronson jokes he does. If we look only at that, we trivialize the people who are really, seriously impaired, who we are trying to understand, and help.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.