Today I’m in Bozeman on my way to present to the Montana School Counselors in Belgrade, MT. As my friends at the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program like to say, “I’m stoked!” I’m stoked because there’s hardly anything much better than spending a day with Montana School Counselors. Woohoo!
My topic tomorrow is “Strategies for Supporting Students with Common Mental Health Conditions.” That means I’ll be reviewing some DSM/ICD diagnostic criteria and that brings me to reflect on the following. . . .
Not long ago (July, 2019), Allsopp, Read, Corcoran, & Kinderman published an article in Psychiatry Research, not so boldly titled, “Heterogeneity in psychiatric diagnostic classification.” Hmm, sounds fascinating (not!).
A few days later, a summary of the article appeared in the less academically and more media oriented, ScienceDaily. The ScienceDaily’s contrasting and much bolder title was, “Psychiatric diagnosis ‘scientifically meaningless.” Wow!
The ScienceDaily summary took the issue even further. They wrote: “A new study, published in Psychiatry Research, has concluded that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically worthless as tools to identify discrete mental health disorders.”
Did you catch that? Scientifically worthless!
In an interview with ScienceDaily, Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman stoked the passion, and avoided any word-mincing.
Dr. Kate Allsopp said, “Although diagnostic labels create the illusion of an explanation they are scientifically meaningless and can create stigma and prejudice. I hope these findings will encourage mental health professionals to think beyond diagnoses and consider other explanations of mental distress, such as trauma and other adverse life experiences.”
Professor Peter Kinderman, University of Liverpool, said: “This study provides yet more evidence that the biomedical diagnostic approach in psychiatry is not fit for purpose. Diagnoses frequently and uncritically reported as ‘real illnesses’ are in fact made on the basis of internally inconsistent, confused and contradictory patterns of largely arbitrary criteria. The diagnostic system wrongly assumes that all distress results from disorder, and relies heavily on subjective judgments about what is normal.”
Professor John Read, University of East London, said: “Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that medical-sounding labels contribute anything to our understanding of the complex causes of human distress or of what kind of help we need when distressed.”
In contrast to the authors’ conclusions, nearly every conventional psychiatrist believes the opposite–and emphasizes that psychiatric diagnosis is of great scientific and medical importance. For example, the Midtown Psychiatry and TMS Center website says, “A correct diagnosis helps the psychiatrist formulate the most effective treatment that will result in remission.”
No doubt there.
In addition, although I literally love that Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman are so outspoken about the potential deleterious effects of diagnosis, I think maybe they take it too far. For example, “Shall we pretend that we should provide the same intervention for panic attacks as we provide for conduct disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and gender dysphoria?”
That’s me talking now . . . and as I discussed this with Rita, she amplified that, of course, if you have a student who’s intentionally engaging in violent acts that harm others, we’re not treating them the same as a student who’s suffering panic attacks. Obviously.
Psychiatric diagnosis is a great example of a dialectic. Yes, in some ways it’s meaningless and overblown. And yes, in some ways it provides crucial information that informs our treatment approaches.
This leads me to my final point, and to my handouts.
What’s our School Counseling take-away message?
Let’s keep the baby and throw out with the bathwater.
Let’s de-emphasize labels – because labelling, whether accurate or inaccurate and whether self-inflicted or other inflicted, are possibly pathology-inducing.
Instead, let’s focus on specific behavior patterns, as well as abilities, impairments, stressors, and trauma experiences that interfere with academic achievement, personal and social functioning, and career potential.
In case you’re interested in more on this. My handouts for the workshop are below.
The Powerpoints: MFPE 2019 Belgrade Final
Managing fear and anxiety:Childhood Fears Rev
Student de-escalation tips: De-escalation Handout REV
Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It