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Deficient definitions of mental illness

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 5 February 2013

There is no shortage of criticism about the loosening of boundaries in diagnosing mental illness and the role of the key classification document, DSM, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. A document that arose from a crisis in the legitimacy of the profession almost four decades ago in the United States now threatens to be the very cause of a similar crisis all over again when it is due for its fifth version in May.

Most psychiatrists in Australia do not take the document too seriously. It is largely seen as something appropriate to satisfy insurance providers in the US. But my colleagues still use its labels when advising governments, courts or employers when relating opinions about disability, crime or compensation. Some include a footnote in their reports that DSM is an imperfect system that was never meant to be used for such broad purposes.

Huge rises in particular diagnoses are often equally related to funding arrangements, best represented by the exponential increase in autism sufferers to one in 160 people having an autism diagnoses, a fifty fold increase in three decades. Relatives of autism sufferers are also among the most vociferous defenders of the current DSM criteria.


The document's key strength is what is known by statisticians as reliability, in that the same patient is likely to receive the same diagnosis with different providers, something that was woefully deficient before its existence.

Its key weaknesses are validity and a lack of context.

Validity refers to the notion that its categories might have any basis in any biological reality. The committee that determines the diagnostic labels in psychiatry may best be described as a group of middle aged white men who raise their hands when they agree with a certain label. Infact, most diagnoses arise after multiple rounds of horse trading, a process much closer to politics than science.

The most recent reports of internet addiction being included is a case in point, for it has no basis in biology but there are certainly cases of people losing control of their life due to online gaming.

The other key weakness is a lack of context, best described in one of the most heralded critiques of modern psychiatric diagnosis by Professors Wakefield and Horwitz in their 2008 book "The Loss of Sadness". In it they describe how grief-like or behaviourally disturbed reactions to significant losses, such as that of a job, divorce or bankruptcy, automatically qualify as illness. Only the death of a loved one is classified separately.

Much like the Bible or the Constitution, nobody can predict what a set of words might later be used for, regardless of its initial intentions. While the document is often accused of being a tool of professional imperialism on the part of psychiatrists, it is far more likely to be used dogmatically by non experts- general practitioners, counsellors and members of the public.


A significant portion of my job is to convince anxious patients that they do not suffer a mental illness merely because they satisfied the check-list found on the internet.

As part of this explanation, I explain that a key requirement of mental illness is not just fulfilling a check list, but experiencing what is known as impairment, or not being able to fulfil social roles in either work or relationships for an extended period of time, at least one month. This has its roots in Freud when he said that they key functions of an adult were to love and to work. Mental illness is ultimately a social definition.

Why is psychiatry forced to rely on a grab bag of symptoms for its diagnoses? Ultimately, it has nothing better to offer. In spite of the huge optimism surrounding neuroscience's ability to explain human behaviour and, in turn, mental illness, the causes of psychopathology remain as obscure and multli-layered as ever. This is both the lure and frustration of working in mental health.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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