Friday, April 17, 2009

What Should Count as a Mental Disorder in DSM-V?

If sick men fared just as well eating and drinking and living exactly as healthy men do . . . there would be little need for the science [of medicine].
attributed to Hippocrates

Well, while I’m here, I’ll do the work—and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. . . .
Allen Ginsberg

What exactly is a “mental disorder”? For that matter, what criteria should determine whether any condition is a “disease” or a “disorder”? Is “disease” something like an oak tree—a physical object you can bump into or put your arms around? Or are terms like “disease” and “disorder” merely abstract, value-laden constructs, akin to “injustice” and “immorality”? Are categories of disease and disorder fundamentally different in psychiatry than in other medical specialties? And—by the way—how do the terms “disease,” “disorder,” “syndrome,” “malady,” “sickness,” and “illness” differ?

Anyone who believes there are easy or certain answers to these questions is either in touch with the Divine Mind, or out of touch with reality. To appreciate the complexity and ambiguity in this conceptual arena, consider this quote from the venerable Oxford Textbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry:

The term “mental illness” is probably best used for those disorders that are intuitively most like bodily illness (or disease) and, yet, mental rather than bodily. This of course implies everything that is built into the mind-brain problem!1(p11)

In a single sentence, we are already grappling with the terms “illness,” “disorder,” and “disease,” not to mention Cartesian psychology! And yet—daunting though these issues are—they are central to the practical task now before the DSM-V committees: figuring out what conditions ought to be included as psychiatric disorders.


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