On August 8, 2015, I spoke at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention that was held in Toronto, Canada. My speech was part of a two hour symposium titled: “Beyond the DSM–Current Trends in Devising New Diagnostic Alternatives.” The DSM’s letters stand for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is currently used by most mental health professionals to classify people seeking mental health services.
When the latest version of this manual came out, it was widely criticized. Consequently, a group of psychologists began to work together to think about possible alternatives. Several members of that group spoke at this symposium.
Of late, I have been discussing today’s symposium theme with quite a few people. I have found that supporters of the DSM say that it is a classification system that has been helpful because it provides a common language for mental health professionals to communicate about those utilizing their services; its various diagnostic terms, such as Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, etc., are short phrases that are convenient for placing them into article titles, book titles, and search engines to retrieve valued relevant information; third party payers of mental health services have found that the DSM coding system works well as part of a practical method for their record keeping; with the aid of these codes, people do manage to access mental health services, mental health service providers do manage to get paid, and for-profit health companies do tend to make a profit.
So, from my discussions, those are the basic reasons supporters of the DSM say that it is useful. Actually, there is another usefulness of the DSM that, interestingly, I never hear supporters of the DSM mention, and yet critics of the DSM often mention. That usefulness is this: by using medical sounding terms to refer to all of the experiences that the DSM classifies as “mental disorders” it legitimizes in the minds of many the prescribing of drugs for these experiences.
There is an enormous amount of money being made from this approach because it takes less than a penny to manufacture each pill, and it can be sold for more than one thousand times that amount. With so much money being generated from this enterprise, the drug companies have managed to make it clear to powerful groups that what benefits the drug companies also benefits them. Examples are, major media outlets gain enormous revenues from drug company advertisements, and political campaigns get substantial support from the industry.
So this benefit is in a sense the elephant in the room. I fully see it, but nevertheless, I want to move it off to the side of the room for now, and ask you all to briefly ignore it. After I complete my main ideas, I’ll return to the elephant in my concluding remarks.
Keeping in mind just the usefulness of the DSM that its supporters tend to mention, it seems to me that if we are to have any hope that an alternative to the DSM might be widely adopted, we would have to be able to make an excellent case that the alternative would be just as helpful while, at the same time, have significantly less shortcomings.
What are these shortcomings? Well, in brief, critics of the DSM have expressed concerns that it tends to be stigmatizing to mental health service users; the DSM also simplistically devalues all of the experiences that it classifies as mental disorders despite the fact that there are a great number of people who have testified that having gone through these very types of experiences it brought forth valued fruits.
For example, Leo Tolstoy reported it his biography, My Confession, that by going through a period of suicidal depression, it led to one valued insight after another.
As another example, the fine song writer, Joni Mitchell apparently went through, during her life, a number of very challenging emotional experiences that first received the full DSM psychopathologizing treatment. In time, her perspective changed, and at one point she expressed her new perspective in a song titled, “Hejira.” She wrote, “There’s comfort in melancholy where there is no need to explain, it’s just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today.” Thus, for many, the framing of their experiences as mental disorders dramatically misses the mark; critics of the DSM also point out that it violates basic principles of science because of its vaguely defined constructs and thus low inter-rater reliability; the DSM also violates basic principles of humanistic psychology; and within the mental health field the DSM is a monopoly, with all of the drawbacks associated with such an organizational situation.
So, those are, in brief, the DSM shortcomings. Keeping them in mind along with its perceived benefits, is it possible to come up with an alternative that indeed does achieve all of the benefits that the DSM supporters claim for it, while, at the same time, has far fewer shortcomings? Well, for your consideration, I offer you the Classification and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Concerns, or, for short, the CSM. Not the DSM, but the CSM! Let’s look at what each chapter would contain.
The first chapter would begin by stating that the developers of the CSM fully recognize that individuality outruns any classification system. It is for this reason that the CSM does not seek to classify anyone. Instead, it classifies the expressed concerns of individuals seeking to have their concerns addressed by a mental health service provider.
This first chapter would go on from here to explain that the CSM begins from the perspective of the person seeking services. Because the expression of a mental health concern is a clearly observable event that occurs at a specific time and place, by making it the event being classified in the CSM it solves the reliability problems that have been plaguing the DSM’s far more abstract concept of “mental disorders.”
After this statement, the CSM would clearly define its main construct:
A mental health concern occurs when a person seeking mental health services expresses to a mental health service provider a concern about any of these topics: behavior, emotion, mood, addictions, meaning of life, death, dying, managing chronic pain, work, relationships, education, eating, cognition, sleep, and challenging life situation.
So, those are the basic ingredients of Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 would begin by explaining that the CSM has two classes of expressed concerns–Concerns expressed about oneself, and concerns expressed about someone else. An example of the first class is, Sally is seeking mental health services and expresses a concern to a mental health service provider that she has been experiencing a great deal of anxiety when she enters social situations. An example of the second class is Bob, a father, upon seeking counseling for his son, expresses a concern about his child’s behavior.
Each of these two classes of concerns would have under each of its headings a list of specific concerns, along with an assigned code to be used for third-party payer record keeping.
So, let’s quickly return to the example of Sally expressing a concern that she has been experiencing a great deal of anxiety in social situations. This would be referred to, for classification purposes, as a “social situation anxiety” concern. Notice that “social situation anxiety” is just three words, thus it is short enough to be used in article titles, book titles and search engines.
Each of the actual expressed concerns would be just as useful as the DSM terms for providing those in the mental health profession a common language for communication about those utilizing their services.
In this chapter 2, it would be explained how the creators of the CSM identified the list of concerns included in the CSM. These concerns would be identified by a survey of a sample of mental health service providers. Those filling out the survey would first read the definition of a mental health concern. Then they would list, in order of frequency, the various concerns that they had been asked to address in their practice over the course of the previous year. At the back of the CSM would be a summary of the findings of this survey and its related statistics.
Moving on to Chapter 3
As noted, the previous chapter would be designed to provide the method for identifying and coding a set of brief mental health concern descriptors suitable for a number of practical purposes. Once this is achieved the CSM then provides a method to develop a lengthier psychological formulation approach that is designed to fill in additional details about the expressed concern. Thus, Chapter 3 of the CSM would be devoted to describing good practice guidelines for the use of a type of psychological formulation that is consistent with the CSM’s philosophy of not psychopathologizing individuals. This type of psychological formulation provides an approach that expands on the brief expressed concerns of individuals by developing a narrative of several paragraphs. It can be defined as the process involving a mental health service user and a mental health service provider co-constructing a hypothesis or ‘best guess’ about the origins of the mental health service user’s concerns in the context of his or her strengths, relationships, social circumstances, cultural heritage, life events, and the sense that he or she has made of them.
Defending the CSM
Okay, these are the basic chapters of the CSM. Now let’s quickly recall that supporters of the DSM believe that it is a classification system that is useful because it provides a common language for mental health professionals to communicate with one another. I hope from what I have already said, that you can plainly see that the CSM would provide an alternative plain, humane language that would be just as practical as the DSM. But let’s look a little more closely at this via an example.
When I was doing my practicum at the University of Minnesota’s Counseling Center, I worked there for a whole year and we had no need to use the “mental disorder” jargon of the DSM to communicate. When my advisor asked me to quickly tell him about my morning cases, I would reply with words like, “My 9:00 a.m. case is concerned about feeling depressed, my 10:00 case is concerned about his failing grades, my 11:00 case is concerned about how anxious she is in social situations. If my advisor wanted to know more about a case, we went into the psychological formulation type of information. Communication flowed easily. This is how the CSM would work in practice.
The idea that the DSM’s coding system is a practical approach for third party payers’ record keeping is an essential point made by DSM supporters. With the following description, I think you will readily see that the CSM approach is just as practical.
Third party payer systems have a form that must be filled out whenever someone seeks mental health services under their plan. This form has a little box that currently says, “Diagnosis.” In that box, mental health professionals are required to fill in the DSM code that corresponds to their so-called diagnosis of the person seeking services.
With the CSM proposal, all that we would be asking third-party payer institutions to do differently in order to add value for their customers, is to slightly change that little box. Instead of just saying “Diagnosis” as it currently says, that box would add two simple words, so it would end up saying “Diagnosis or Concern.” Then, when mental health professionals fill in the box, they would be given the choice to either write in the letters “DSM-5” and its code number that corresponds to its so-called diagnosis, or they would write the letters CSM and its code number that corresponds to the expressed concern.
With the creation of the CSM, not only will mental health providers have a new option to choose from, but so too will mental health consumers. They would be given the choice to go to psychopathologizing mental health service providers or those using the CSM approach.
So, for third party payers, that’s all the change that would be required in order to increase value for a significant number of mental health providers and service users. And a major goal that all third-party payers have is to increase value for their customers. The cost and effort for adding this new option for these payers would be minimum.
In conclusion, the creation of the CSM would improve value for consumers of mental health services. It would provide a practical approach that offers a new choice for those mental health service users and providers who are dissatisfied with the DSM. It does so in a manner that is more scientific and humanistic. Moreover, the creation of the CSM would break up the DSM monopoly.
Yes, the DSM’s medical jargon has an enormous benefit to the pharmaceutical industry. However, with the creation of the CSM, the elephant would still get fed. Those who prefer the DSM to the CSM would be able to continue to use it. The pharmaceutical industry will still be able to promote the drugs with images of a patient looking miserable and family members distraught, all in grey, black and white, followed by images of the same patient taking a pill, now smiling in vibrant living color, with the sun shining, and family members gathered around, and bouquets of flowers brightening the whole world. There will be plenty of people who will still seek to have their concerns washed away with the ease of swallowing a pill.
Despite drug companies being able to still make a great deal of money even if the CSM was to become widely adopted, no doubt the industry as a whole would still seek to try with all its might to maintain the monopoly it currently enjoys. No doubt, big money can be very influential in putting a stop to competition. I get that. But to help us to think a little more clearly about this, let’s use a metaphor fitting to our country’s current enormous interest in the presidential primary campaigns.
You all know about the discussions going on about how a few billionaires has so much influence on who will get to win. There is much truth to this concern, but I ask you to keep in mind that every now and then, a dark horse comes along that does manage to win despite all of the big money that went to supporting the favorite of the super-rich.
In my view, the CSM has the potential to be that type of dark horse. I’m hoping that this is so because there exists enough psychologists out there who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get down to do the necessary work of joining their efforts with those of other allied professionals and mental health consumer advocacy groups because they believe this is in the best interest of those they seek to serve.
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.