The National Institute of Mental Health is abandoning the DSM.
This is potentially monumental
, and I've seen very little mention of it anywhere. Partly, I think, because people don't really grok how big a deal this is.This is a very good thing,
and for those who don't grasp why, I will try to explain. (Though the link does a really great job of it, so really, you can just go read it.)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a big-ass book released by the American Psychiatric Association that provides a standard method of categorization for mental illnesses based on related symptoms. Like a dictionary, it has given doctors, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals a common vocabulary with which to describe and define mental illness, so they are using the same terms in more or less the same ways, and arriving at consistent (even if they are sometimes inaccurate) diagnoses. It has been revised several times since the first edition in 1952, and has been released in four, soon to be five, major versions.
It has been a useful tool, but it is now insufficient. Over and above the fact that it has always and still does pathologize certain normal, healthy behaviors, which I won't go into here, it relies on a primarily medical definition of mental illness. It does not place a diagnosis in context with the patient's environment or upbringing, etc., or even with their experience of their symptoms.*
That would perhaps be tolerable, but
. . . the DSM does this by relying on a purely symptomatic
mode of classification, without taking into account underlying neurological/biological causes – different things may cause similar symptoms. So, it reduces mental illness to medical causes . . . but doesn't then require there to be a common cause. Disorders are defined by symptom clusters, and not by actual, you know, hard data about neurotransmitters, brain activity, and so forth.
To liken it to something more familiar, chest pain might be caused by blocked blood vessels in the heart, or might be caused by acid reflux. If we were working by the DSM model of diagnosis via symptomatic classification, they would both be the same, yet I am sure every single person reading this understands that a heart attack and heartburn are not at all the same thing. Classifying them under the same category and treating them the same would be disastrous. (The linked article uses the exact same example, yes. Because it's perfect.)
The more we learn about mental illness, the more we learn that it is a tremendously complicated thing. What seems to be one category of illness (depression) can actually be two or more conditions which appear similar but stem from very different biological causes. Depression might be caused by a lack of serotonin. It might be caused by a lack of dopamine. It might be caused by a thyroid imbalance. There is more than one chemical irregularity responsible for the set of symptoms we call "depression."
As an example from my actual life, until recently, bipolar disorder was not divided into bipolar I and bipolar II. There was just bipolar I, which is the classic "manic-depression" that everyone's probably heard of. You didn't get classified as bipolar unless you had manic states. Because this automatically excluded people whose bipolar disorder skewed toward the depressive side and seldom or never ticked into the manic, or excluded people who didn't recognize mania for what it was, bipolar II was often diagnosed as unipolar depression.
When you treat bipolar II like unipolar depression, you can get a very
sick and possibly dead bipolar II person. At the very least, you get a person who doesn't get better, because bipolar disorder does not just go away. SSRI drugs, often the first line of defense against depression, usually do not work on bipolar depression. You can see why this sucks.
This mistake is part of why my mother was never diagnosed properly, and why her depression was never managed. She suffered needlessly because of it. For a long time, I did, too. There are ugly real-world consequences to the symptoms-only approach. Not just human suffering, but jacking up data that could have led to better treatments.
Imagine all the bipolar II people who were thought to be depressed who were doubtless included in data collections, in experiments, altering the results. SSRIs don't work on bipolar people, but bipolar II people totally made it into SSRI testing. We can't know what kind of effect this has had. We can know that it isn't good. It's not leading to better drugs. It's not leading to better treatment. It's leading to mistakes. It's leading us to ditch treatments that only work on 10% of people with a particular symptom, when those 10% are mostly people with a totally different underlying condition. That treatment, applied only to the people with that condition, might be 60% effective or more. We have lost opportunities because of this. It is a certainty.
Back in the dark ages, we went at everything symptomatically because we had no way to understand what was happening inside us. We thought that fevers were caused by poisonous emanations from the earth, or evil spirits. Medical treatment was often "bleed more, poop more, puke more, one of those will make you feel better." Well, now we understand things a lot more thoroughly, and we acknowledge that treating the root cause of a thing is better than going after the symptoms and not resolving the issue. Why address lethargy, weight gain, depression, constipation, high cholesterol, and infertility with who knows how many drugs and treatments when you could just treat a simple thyroid hormone deficiency with one very cheap and easy to obtain
This approach has not really spread to mental health yet. Frankly, that's because we do not yet understand the causes well enough to treat them. Without understanding the causes, something like the DSM has some value, diagnostically. It gives us something
to go on, and its not completely horrible or inaccurate or anything, just inadequate and far too broad. Clinging to it is unjustifiable.
NIMH's new protocol, the Research Domain Criteria project, or RDoC, is not a new classification system, it will be the framework for gathering data to fill in the gaping holes in our understanding of how mental illness actually works.
Essentially, NIMH, which carries out a great deal of very important mental health information-gathering and research, is jettisoning the DSM as a classification system for purposes of that information-gathering and research. Currently, the DSM classifications are used when researching mental illness, which biases results inherently in favor of those classifications.
It is not going to transform what doctors do and how they treat mental illness starting tomorrow. What it will do is lead us to a better understanding of mental illness, and over time that
will lead to radically better treatment.
This is a big step forward for mental health research. In my opinion, we will start seeing results surprisingly soon, as the first waves of research yield more accurate information. There is so much we don't know that increasing the data set even a little bit is going to improve things.
I'm excited about this. I look forward to seeing what new things we learn.
(The fact that NIMH's announcement comes only a few weeks before the DSM-5 is released amuses me.)* Example: I "hear voices." Also, I am sometimes other people, a little bit. The DSM doesn't acknowledge those things as a deliberately and carefully cultivated coping mechanism, only as a bad thing indicative of other bad things. In context, it is healthy. In the book, it's pathological. Regardless, it's a sanity-saver, and one I continually seek to reinforce. Doesn't matter how it looks on paper. Say hello to the boys. They keep me safe.