What harm can DSM-V do?
Elsewhere, I have outlined the 3 harmful unintended consequences that emerged unexpectedly from DSM-IV4-6: namely, a contribution to the false epidemics of autism and attention-deficit disorder and a forensic disaster that has led to the inappropriate psychiatric commitment of sexually violent offenders. These unpleasant surprises occurred despite the fact that DSM-IV was stubbornly unambitious, discouraged all changes, required extensive empirical documentation, and was reviewed widely by the field at large and by numerous advisors. The risks of unintended consequences from an ambitious, secretive, and poorly organized DSM-V are numerous and significant. My focus here is only on the ways in which DSM-V may be costly and risky to the research enterprise.
The criteria sets for the most widely studied disorders have been quite stable since the publication of DSM-III in 1980 and since the publication of the Research Diagnostic Criteria in 1978. These DSM criteria sets served as the foundation of the structured and semi-structured interview instruments widely used in all clinical and epidemiological research. Whenever DSM-V makes a change in a criteria set, this necessitates a change in the instruments used to assess that diagnosis.
Aside from the considerable cost and inconvenience occasioned by them, such changes have the potential to break the highly desirable continuity between the past, ongoing research, and future research findings. The new diagnostic criteria will have untested psychometric performance characteristics and may result in a very different definition of “caseness.” This would make it extremely difficult to interpret differences in findings across time, because the studies will have been done using different criteria. This “apples and oranges” problem will greatly complicate the already difficult interpretation of the often radically different rates of mental disorder determined by different epidemiological studies.7-10
A prime example of how far the ambitions of the DSM-V Task Force has exceeded its grasp is its goal to develop and market a set of new interviewing instruments to be used in conjunction with DSM-V.3 While the commercial motivation is understandable, the disruption of the continuity of the methods would be unfortunate and the costs of switching to a new system of instruments would be prohibitive and wasteful. Moreover, nothing in the work to date by the DSM-V Task Force inspires confidence in its ability to produce and test useful new interviewing instruments and it would seem to have its hands more than full producing DSM-V itself without needing other distractions.
As I have argued elsewhere, there are serious risks in including a number of prodromal and subthreshold conditions as official diagnostic categories in DSM-V.11-13 The most appealing subthreshold conditions (minor depression, mixed anxiety depression, minor cognitive disorder, and prepsychotic disorder) are all characterized by nonspecific symptoms that are present at extremely high frequencies in the general population. These proposed “disorders” might well become among the most common diagnoses in the general population—particularly once they are helped along by drug company marketing—resulting in excessive use of medications that often have serious long-term complications associated with weight gain. Early case finding is a wonderful goal, but it requires a happy combination of a specific diagnostic test and a safe intervention. Instead, we would now have the peculiarly unhappy combination of a wildly false-positive set of criteria coupled with potentially dangerous interventions.
Prospective epidemiological research suggests that DSM-IV is already quite over-inclusive.14 In addition widening the net would go even further in both medicalizing normality and trivializing psychiatric diagnoses. Altogether, in my view, the costs and risks of the subthreshold diagnoses far outweigh any possible current gains.
What can be done to save DSM-V from itself?
The DSM-V process would not be in its current state if it had been self-correcting and/or open to external suggestions. Influencing its direction now will not be easy but is certainly not impossible. It will require a sustained external pressure that the research community is well positioned to apply.
Optimism that DSM-V can be saved from itself springs from the fact that external pressure has already resulted in the following improvements, however reluctantly made:
1. Appointment by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Board of Trustees of an oversight committee to monitor the work on DSM-V
2. Postponement of field trials until after options have been posted and reviewed
3. Reduction of hype about a “paradigm shift”
4. Increased recognition of the value of caution
5. Likely postponement of the publication date of DSM-V to May 2013.
There are 3 levers of pressure that the research community can exert to affect a more open, empirically based, and accurate DSM-V:
• Most immediately, starting in January, researchers can each have a valuable correcting role by pointing out the specific problems in their areas that will be caused by the various DSM-V suggestions for change.
• Within the APA itself, the most relevant components are the Council on Research and Quality and the newly appointed oversight committee—which includes prominent spokespeople for the research community.
• The APA will be exquisitely sensitive to pressure from the research community—most especially if it comes from the NIMH, National Institute of Drug Abuse, and/or National Institute of Alcohol(Drug information on alcohol) Abuse and Alcoholism, but also from other relevant research-oriented organizations within psychiatry, psychology, and the neurosciences. The APA realizes that it holds the franchise to publish DSM only by historical accident and that this is easily revocable if enough interested organizations lose confidence in its competence and its ability to control the inherent conflict of interest.
Another possible contribution to DSM-V that has excited many psychiatric researchers—but which is certainly premature—is the proposal to go beyond the descriptive method used in the DSM system and instead attempt to base the classification on the exciting new findings from the revolution in neuroscience.15 This goal would certainly be highly desirable but, in my view, should not play any current role in creating the DSM-V diagnostic criteria. As an official nomenclature, DSM-V must follow behind research and include findings that are well-established and widely agreed-on.
The next 6 months are certain to be the most important in the development of DSM-V—especially because the field trials will probably not measure impact on rates and are thus likely not to be very informative. Researchers should carefully review DSM-V drafts as they emerge and make their concerns known.