National Institutes of Mental Health abandons DSM-5

Just weeks before the new diagnostic manual is released, NIMH cites “lack of validity” and says “patients with mental disorders deserve better.”

PET-imageIn a surprising announcement just weeks before the scheduled release of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the US government’s mental health research arm has announced plans to stop using DSM categories in its work.

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) is the single largest funder of mental health research in the world. In his announcement last week explaining the decision, NIMH Director Thomas Insel wrote that “Symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.” While diagnositic categories based on clusters of symptoms — like the categories in the DSM — provide a common language that mental health care providers and researchers can use, these categories are more about that consistency in usage (i.e., reliability) than they are about clinical or research validity. Such symptom-based diagnosis, Insel argued, is now outdated in most other areas of medicine.

So NIMH is scrapping DSM categories when funding future research and is developing its own framework to “transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging [such as the PET scan pictured above], cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system,” according to Insel. For now, the new classification system is just a framework for research. But the clear intention is to make the DSM obsolete.

As a family therapist, I find the DSM-5 categories to be both useful and limited in the ways Insel described. They are a good tool for communicating with other professionals, but not especially useful for clients, beyond establishing that others may have similar suffering. I like the idea of a new classification system for mental disorders based on biology and verifiable laboratory tests (indeed, I think it’s overdue), and think it quite likely that such a system will strongly support systemic and relational therapies. The brain is a social organ, after all, and therapy creates verifiable physiological changes in the brain.

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