Our Society's Preoccupation with Diagnoses

Source: PHD Comics
I read a splendid article several months ago entitled "A 'Cure' for Character" by George Will, a prominent columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner. In it he criticises the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for adding an astonishing number of tribulations which have cropped up over the years to afflict us. For example:

Today's DSM defines "oppositional defiant disorder" as a pattern of "negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures." Symptoms include "often loses temper," "often deliberately annoys people" or "is often touchy." DSM omits this symptom: "is a teenager."
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My mention is no substitute for reading his article, so go read it. Psychology is not a quasi-science; there are definitely true cases of mental illness and depression. But when we start analysing the minute character flaws that are commonplace two major side effects occur (aside from the social and fiscal costs): it mutes the individual's responsibility to cope with superficial issues, and it hurts those who truly suffer from a mental illness by lowering the average severity. Robert David Jaffee illustrates this in one of his articles:

I don't doubt that our natural and technological environment can add to our problems, perhaps even traumatize us. I just don't think that such traumas rise to the level of pathologies, and I can't help but think that we really are over-diagnosing our children and our adults. While mental illness...is prevalent throughout the world, it should not be cheapened by the latest fads. Mental illness, at least as I have experienced it, comes from the core. It is not fashionable in any sense.
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George Will has written extensively about his son, Jon, who has Down syndrome. But he recognises his son's potential for a happy normal life. Wrote Will, "Jon experiences life's three elemental enjoyments—loving, being loved, and ESPN. For Jon, as for most normal American males, the rest of life is details." To me, the fundamental reasons for diagnoses lie in core problems with the first two items listed there: loving and being loved. Other character flaws are simply unimportant "details".

Without these flaws, though, wouldn't life be boring?

Source: The Boston Phoenix


Anonymous said...

This is a trend I have definitely noticed. When things are going rough in life or you are just worried about things, it seems there are always some people who ask you if you have considered taking anti-depressants. I agree, there are character flaws and problems in life, but these are very different than mental illness.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a lot of people jump to take anti-depressants or even parents encouraging their children they need anti-depressants. Some people legitimately have depression, while others use it as an excuse for their actions and feelings. We are preoccupied with trying to figure out what is wrong with us and blame it on some sort of illness when really it's an internal issue where we just need to learn to be happy with ourselves. Cool post :)

Belle said...

People forget real mental illness is when it is interfering with your ability to accomplish day to day tasks and live a "normal" life. Social workers, psychologists, doctors, average people, etc forget that diagnoses are meant to help you find ways to help the person, not to use as a label or excuse for behavior. It helps explain why things are they way they are or what they are, it does not often justify the behavior or action. I always hated when people at the state hospital would say oh, it's because they're such and such diagnosis. Are "anti-socials" the only people who would hate being asked to attend so many groups a day, eat their meals at such and such time, and sleep only at certain times, and have all activities limited? Who wouldn't be "anti-social" at times with such conditions? All of us have tendencies that would fit under multiple diagnoses, but that's not the question, the question is how much is it affecting our ability to live life? Such an issue on both sides of the coin :(

Belle said...

Will's article brings up some points, but doesn't quite define them well enough. The DSM definitions have to be seen in whole not just quoted from, you usually if not always need more than one of the symptoms listed, and there needs to be a duration of time and other qualifications for an actual diagnosis. Sometimes children and adults are given diagnoses so that they can be eligible for treatment (that they need but not that they fit under the diagnosis given). The definition of "normal" is also a major issue-and becoming more so. Of course LDS norms would vary from societal norms so diagnosis with specific qualifications SHOULD help make diagnosis a less subjective. Normal isn't so easy to find any more. Diagnoses are supposed to be useful in classification and treatment and are unfortunately to often misused by the common person as well as the practitioner who's "seen it a million times" or who is inexperienced or who has poor judgement or is just trying to qualify someone for services (not that this should be done). People use these diagnosis as a crutch or a label rather than an aide to wellness...sad.

Araignée said...

@polysonic, herstoryofwomen: Thanks for your comments!

@Belle: Many of the full definitions of disorders can be found on Google Health. For example, the one I quoted is found here. Once again, I agree there are real ailments, but this and several of the others he mentioned are problematic: beyond the symptoms, "studies have shown that it affects 20% of school-age children..."

Honestly? 20% of those around me probably grew up with it? I hardly consider this a disorder, but instead a character trait. And amazingly, raising your child right is the mode of prevention.

Clearly this "disorder" won't help clear up the psychiatric world. Instead, this will clutter results with countless diagnoses, delaying help from getting to the people that need treatment and overburdening the health system in general.

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