Psychiatric Name Calling: What Do People Say About It?

Mental-Illness_1In recent weeks, I have been providing a series of blog posts on psychiatric name calling (see here, here, here, and here).  In these posts, I have expressed some negative opinions about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

DSMThe DSM provides the names for the various mental health concerns that mental health service providers are often required to use if they want to be paid for their services or if they want to have their research published in professional journals.The language of the DSM places its terminology under the umbrella concepts of “mental illness,” “mental disorder,” and “psychopathology.”  In my blog series, I have argued that the pathologizing of human experiences in this way does far more harm than good.

A2EFXY Person behind a frosted window. Image shot 01/2007. Exact date unknown.

As part of my discussions on this topic, I quoted the opinions of some who agreed, and some who disagreed, with my opinions.  The quotes that I used were selected from my own personal readings. Therefore, they may not have been characteristic of how a wider range of different people may think and feel about the DSM approach to labeling the various mental health concerns.

Mental-Illness_4Recently, two teams of researchers have sought to obtain a broader range of views on this topic by carrying out surveys. Jonathan D. Raskin and Michael C. Gayle surveyed psychologists who regularly use the DSM, and published their findings in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (DSM-5: Do Psychologists Really Want an Alternative? 2015, pages 1-18). Lois Holzman and her team surveyed people in some New York City communities, and published her findings on the website (A Report on Community Outreach: Lay Opinions on Emotional Distress and Diagnosis, Let’s take a look at their findings.

What the Psychologists Had to Say

Here’s a summary of the survey data by Jonathan D. Raskin and Michael C. Gayle:

psychiatry5Only two published studies, both from the early 1980s, have specifically examined psychologist attitudes toward the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The current article rectifies this by presenting the results of a recent survey of attitudes toward the DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5. Though the DSM has changed over the years, psychologist attitudes toward it have remained remarkably consistent. Although more than 90% of psychologists report using the DSM, they are dissatisfied with numerous aspects of it and support developing alternatives to it—something that psychologists over 30 years ago supported, as well. The finding that almost all psychologists use the DSM despite serious concerns about it raises ethical issues because professionals are ethically bound to only use instruments in which they are scientifically confident.

psych labelsIn the above summary, the number 5 after the letters DSM, refers to the fact that the DSM has undergone five major revisions. Since the 1980s, there have been three such revisions.  Ideally, users of the DSM would see clear improvement for each revision.

When a survey was done in the early 1980s, psychologists were clearly skeptical of the DSM-2.  As described by Raskin and Gayle,

More than 40% felt it (a) distorted clinician perceptions of clients, (b) applied medical labels to psychosocial problems, (c) was not reliable and valid, (d) emphasized diagnosis over treatment, (e) obscured individual differences, and (f) overemphasized pathology. Almost 60% were dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the DSM-2 with only 17% satisfied or somewhat satisfied.

Mental-Illness_5When the DSM-3 came out in 1983, Smith and Kraft carried out an updated survey on this revision of the DSM-2. The findings indicated that psychologists at that time (a) preferred social–interpersonal diagnosis, nondiagnosis, and behavioral analysis over DSM-3—in that order; (b) felt that most conditions in DSM-3 were best seen as nonmedical problems in living; (c) believed too little had been done to develop scientific alternatives to the DSM; and (d) thought that client welfare and integrity would be better served by abandoning the medical model. Eighty-five percent disagreed that mental disorders are a subset of medical disorders.

In the latest survey that was carried out by Raskin and Gayle, 128 anonymous psychologists participated.  Among the questions that were asked was, “How satisfied are you with the changes being proposed for DSM-5?” Their answers indicated that they were significantly more negative about it than neutral. The general attitude about the latest version of the DSM were very similar to what was found three decades ago, namely, that a significant number of psychologists are unhappy with the DSM.

What Community Folks Had to Say

Mental-Illness_6In the community outreach survey of lay opinions on emotional distress and diagnosis carried out by Lois Holzman and her colleagues, people were asked questions at two annual NYC street fairs attended by millions of people. Conversations lasted from five to over ten minutes each. In all, 143 people participated in the survey in the first of these two surveys, which occurred in 2013. The second one had 149 people who participated, which occurred in 2014.

In the 2013 survey, the focus was on how psychiatric diagnosis affected kids. Forty percent felt that psychiatric diagnosis was not valuable.  For the 60% that felt that psychiatric diagnoses can be valuable, 90% of them had reservations.  That is, they said that it was only sometimes helpful, there was a danger of misdiagnosis, there was racism involved in diagnosis, and it leads to stigma and over-medication.

Ten percent were completely against diagnosis under any circumstance, some sharing their experiences pertaining to children. Examples of comments from this group follow:

Mental-Illness_8“Medication makes you act out. My grandson was hyperactive, not ADHD and they wanted to put him on Ritalin – I told them no. Drugs at an early age can lead to hard core drugs later in life.”

“I worked with kids who had wrong diagnosis, and this is prevalent.”

“Kids get told in 1st grade they’re crazy—then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In the 2014 survey, the researchers:

“tried to go a little deeper and see if we could help people explore the apparent conflict around diagnosis, i.e., its value and its dangers. We also wanted to learn what they thought about the necessity and mandate of diagnosis.

  1. Mental-Illness_9We all know people who have gotten very depressed when they’ve lost a loved one, or children who cannot sit still in school, lots of folks who are angry and demoralized about not finding a job. Do you think any of these people need to get a diagnosis in order to get help with their emotional pain?


  • Do we need to relate to them as having brain disorders? Or chemical imbalances?
  • Right now, in most settings, if you want to get help with ANY kind of emotional pain from a mental health professional, they are required to give you a diagnosis. Do you agree with that?
  1. Mental-Illness_10Are there other ways to support people emotionally? What do you think could help them?
  2. Like me, you probably know people in your family, church, or at work who have serious emotional problems, who may have been diagnosed with major depression, bipolar or schizophrenia. Obviously people deserve and need top quality mental health care including access to medication. Do you think that even in these situations a diagnosis can limit the person, label them, and stigmatize them? If so, how?
  3. From our past surveys we have found that people are conflicted about diagnosis and labels. They find it relieving to get a diagnosis and at the same time feel like the diagnosis can stigmatize or label them. Why do you think that so many of us are conflicted about this, feel it can be both helpful and harmful?

Here’s a brief summary of the finding, as described by Dr. Holzman:

  1. Diagnosis Needed: 60% of respondents said no, people did not need a diagnosis to get help with their emotional pain. The majority of the 40% who said diagnosis was needed told us that that was the only way to get to talk to someone.

Only those who said yes, diagnosis was needed (40%), were asked the next two questions.

Mental-Illness_71a. Biological Basis: 89% of those who said diagnosis was needed said we shouldn’t consider such people as having a brain disorder or chemical imbalance.

1b. Diagnosis Required: 75% of those who said diagnosis was needed did not agree that it should be required.

  1. Other Ways to Support (alternative types of treatment):

Everyone offered an alternative, with most people suggesting more than one. The most frequent responses involved talking to people—therapy, counseling, group therapy being the most common (including, “A center they can go to without getting diagnosed”), followed by family, friends, self-help and support groups.

A social eventA wide variety of social activities and life style changes were recommended—volunteering, hobbies, music, dance, writing, meditation, exercise, yoga, diet, prayer and creating community (“Have events that bring people out, like this fair”).

  1. & 4. Concerns about Diagnosis: 90% (including those who thought it was needed) expressed concerns about the stigma of diagnosis, the dangers of misdiagnosis, and/or the over-medication that too often accompanies a diagnosis.

Once you have that label it doesn’t stay at the clinic. You carry it with you for a long time.

People start calling you crazy. It can be a shame for the family.

I had to fight to get counseling for my kid. They just wanted to give him drugs.

Getting a diagnosis limits life experience, you’re treated differently, you feel like an outcast.

It’s helpful to the clinic but not in everyday life.

It’s good to know what’s wrong, but it might make them feel worse about themselves and put them in a box.

a meditatorIt pigeon-holes people and the diagnosis becomes all that I am.

It stagnates them. It keeps them on one path with only one destination.

They think something’s wrong with them.

There is too much use of medication. It is a quick fix to avoid a real understanding.

Against it – children are still growing. Against medication.

So there you have it, some views other than mine about psychiatric name calling. In interpreting these findings, I think it’s important to bear in mind that the views of the people surveyed developed in the context of a multibillion dollar advertisement campaign by the pharmaceutical companies over many years that is designed to convince them that emotional concerns are diagnosable illnesses requiring medication treatment. How might the views of those surveyed been different without this high finance selling of the illness model?


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Bob Dylan On Fools
MY APA Speech On An Alternative to Psychiatric Jargon

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Diagnoses are necessary in order to establish standardized treatment with measurable outcomes. This is required by insurance companies if you want to get paid for your services. Standardized treatment is always required in order to protect clients from sub-standard care, improper diagnoses, and ethical violations. It is vital that mental service providers come together as a united front so that out clients may receive the best possible care. The DSM-V is an example of this happening as it represents a collaboration of views and standardized treatments that not only protect the client, but the provider as well. Within the guidelines of standardized treatment, there are a vast array of treatment options that may be utilized by the provider and client. I feel that the DSM is needed regulations and provides distinct guidelines that protects and serves providers and their clients in an ever-changing field of healthcare.

    • Hi Johnnie Dunn War,
      Much thanks for taking the time to express your opinion on this topic. Your first sentence states, “Diagnoses are necessary in order to establish standardized treatment with measurable outcomes.” I believe that what is called a “diagnosis” in the DSM is more aptly construed as a “classification.” Diagnosis implies that the professional providing someone with a diagnosis knows what is wrong with the “diagnosed” person. Providing a person with a DSM “diagnosis” does not do that. If you read the DSM, it explicitly says that it is neutral about the causes.

      I do agree with you that we need a classification system in order to establish standardized treatment with measurable outcomes. I am not proposing that we get rid of the DSM and use no classification system. I am proposing that we develop an alternative classification system that theoretically is an improvement to the DSM and then we compare outcomes for those who use the alternative with those who use the DSM. This is how science works. My proposed alternative (The Classification and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Concerns) is described in my post titled “Psychiatric Name Calling: Is There An Alternative?

  2. I would like to be added to your mailing list so that I am notified for new posts.
    Thank you for your work in this field, as it is an important one!

    • Hi Brooke Hamman,
      Thanks for your comment and your kind words of support. You can be notified of all new posts by going to the very bottom of this post, just below all of the comments. There you will find a button that will enable you to get notified. I hope to hear more comments from you in the future.


  4. Too many people suffer from low self-worth, resulting in fear, shame, self-criticism and a desperate need for love and belonging. Psychiatrists label these as “illnesses” of “anxiety, depression, and ADHD” etc. These can be easily and effectively addressed without medications by learning to generate self-acceptance. Yet the psychiatry profession continues to medicalize “mental disorders” and push pills, rather than advocate for safe, effective psychotherapy and self-help. As I learned myself, the solution to self-doubt and self-recrimination is finding compassionate self-acceptance, so that internal judgments and the high need for approval decrease. I’m proposing a new way to assess and treat “mental disorders” — check out

    • Hi Harper,
      I like the way you are thinking about these issues. It’s great to know that there are others working toward creating an alternative paradigm.
      My Best,

    • Nice title– good work there. Security- confidence– positive- hopeful- acceptance. all the good stuff.

    • “These can be easily and effectively addressed without medications by learning to generate self-acceptance. Yet the psychiatry profession continues to medicalize “mental disorders” and push pills, rather than advocate for safe, effective psychotherapy and self-help.”

      This is a dangerous statement. I don’t know how many times you have sat with someone at 2am sobbing and holding his head and saying he wishes the voices and images would stop just for a little while so he can get some sleep. This article adds to the stigma some people experience because their brains and central nervous system are not functioning properly and they need someone to help them figure out what the hell is going on and how to mitigate the suffering. People with mental illness are abandoned into “the community” meaning poverty and the streets because anti medication peddlars shame them for having a disorder and for seeking chemical support that can work for them. The low self esteem can come from having odd behaviours they are unable to control such that they don’t fit into “normal” social expectations. The low self esteem can come from having difficulty with decision making and executive function such that others take advantage and they are often in trouble because they struggle with managing day-to-day life. Minor situational sadness is not the same as deep clinical depression because of the brain not operating properly. Poor self esteem does not cause hallucinations for heaven sake and it infuriates me that all mental disorders are conflated into simplistic notions self acceptance.

  5. I have to write something to get on your mailing system!

    • Hi Sheelagh,
      To get on my mailing system all that you have to do is go to the very bottom of this, or any post, and click the button that say, “NOTIFY ME OF NEW POSTS BY EMAIL.”
      I hope that answers your question.
      My Best,

  6. Congrats! As a Licensed Human
    Behavior Researcher. I must commend the material of your published Manual on DSM-5, is one of the best materials in diagnosing medical mental illness of future psychiatric behavior that i have seen yet. Bravo! Very well sought. This reference can be used to assist professionals of all areas of diagnosing mental illness. Well Done!

  7. Fantastic article Dr Rubin– thinkers treating feelers– with names and pills- theirs the problem. Aliens- treating the alienated. Sorry i don’t mean to call anyone any names — 🙂 .

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