I live in a very psych oriented world. I work for a nonprofit that provides services to kids with autism and developmental disabilities and general mental health problems. I spent at least five hours a week in therapy. I talk a lot about mental health, I care a lot about mental health, and a few of my friends and I just started throwing around the idea of creating a skepticism and psychology conference (SO EXCITED). So I’m thinking (as per usual) about mental health.
One of the talks at SkepTech (by the fabulous Stephanie Zvan) was about psychometrics, which is “The science of measuring mental capacities and processes.” She talked a fair amount about how we often define certain disorders based on our stereotypes: we view autism as a boy’s disorder, so the diagnostic criteria are slanted towards how autism presents in boys. I think this is a very important thing to address (especially in terms of race. UGH), and I think the place to start is with the DSM (the psychology diagnostic manual). The DSM is very much a quantitative measure. For eating disorders for example, it lists particular weights, numbers of binges and purges per week, and length of the persistence of the disorder as diagnostic criteria. In many ways, these concrete diagnostic tools are incredibly helpful: they allow insurance to see who to treat or not and they allow clinicians to have something more solid than personal judgment to use in their diagnoses. That’s important. We do need some element of consistency, we need some science in our diagnostic tools.
The problem shows up in the fact that many of these diagnoses are written around what is considered the typical case and doesn’t necessarily allow for any variation. It also doesn’t address the fact that many people have lots of symptoms that don’t quite fit into a neat diagnostic category. In many ways it’s far too rigid. Diagnoses that involve NOS (not otherwise specified) often aren’t covered by insurance, aren’t included in research, and aren’t afforded as much respect as serious problems by clinicians or the individuals diagnosed.
This is a really big deal because it limits who can access mental health care based upon demographic or personal variation. Males with depression generally exhibit it in very different ways from females, and they are not diagnosed as often because they aren’t viewed as the typical depression sufferers. People of color are not diagnosed with eating disorders nearly as often as white girls (particularly teens).
So how can we both create helpful categories AND capture the wild diversity of mental illness? How can we approach mental illness not as a checklist of symptoms that we address and move the individual back to the neurotypical end of the spectrum? First and foremost, insurance needs to NOT be tied to strict diagnosis. That is not fair to individuals who might need preventative therapy or interventions, or those who want to catch a disorder before it becomes so serious that it interferes with their life. It is also not fair to those individuals who have a serious mental illness that is wreaking havoc on them, but who don’t fall neatly into a category. But it’s also unfair to those who DO fall into the category, because it might ignore any other symptoms or problems that could be contributing to their diagnosis. OF COURSE labeling some patterns and similarities can be helpful because it allows us to conduct research and to develop treatments that work for people with similar issues. But these labels should not be considered so strict, should not be the only guide we have in treatment, should not have such harsh boundaries, and should allow more movement between diagnoses. They should be guidelines (the code is more like guidelines than actual rules).
There should also simply be more cross-cultural research. Right now we have very Western-centric views of psychology as well as very white, male views of psychology (thanks Freud). We need to focus on evidence based treatments, and we also need to simply be willing to have MANY types of treatment available for people who are exhibiting different symptoms because of their demographic. We need to have psychologists who are social justice aware: personally I think that sociology, women’s studies, and race studies classes should be required of every psychology major. It is SO important to improve our mental healthcare system, and the first place we need to turn is how we determine who needs mental healthcare.
If we’re being honest? EVERYONE. Mental healthcare isn’t about turning people into the neurotypical. It is about improving functioning. Everyone could use a mental health checkup, just like they have a physical health checkup to make sure they’re functioning like they should and to catch any worries or glitches before they turn into something serious. We need a paradigm shift that no longer sees diagnoses as identifying problematic difference to seeing diagnoses as identifying problems with functioning that require help.
NOTE: they are trying to adjust some of these problems in the latest update of the DSM, the DSM-V which is coming out in May.