Skip to content
Surprising Science

The Bible of Psychiatry is a Book of Woe

Psychiatry’s bible is also its worst enemy.

This post is based on an Jeff Schectman’s interview on his podcast, Specific Gravity. Find more from Specific Gravity here.

Since 1952, the American Psychiatric Association has created and maintained a guide to diagnosing and identifying psychiatric conditions. There have been five total issues of the guide, with the latest update, the first since 1994, having just been released.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is so important to the practice of psychology and psychiatry that it is often unironically referred to as “The Bible of Psychiatry”. Inclusion in the DSM means that a disorder or psychiatric condition formally exists (and can be recognized by courts, insurance companies, the FDA, etc.), and exclusion means that it formally does not.

In his new book, The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, which he discussed with Jeff Schechtman on Specific Gravity, author and psychotherapist Gary Greenberg discusses the pitfalls of this system, in which the meeting of bland and often unscientific criteria is the sole qualification for pathology.

Greenberg says that the DSM is ultimately a very fragile document, and that the power it is given, which power is basically complete and unquestionable authority on all matters psychological, is undue. He notes that its appeal as an inerrant text (notes of biblical stature once again) is largely as a money maker for the American Psychiatric Association and as a fundamentally lazy (to the point of being inaccurate) way to understand, diagnose, and treat psychiatric pathologies.

He notes the Catch-22 absurdity of having to act as though definitions and categories decided upon by human committee are as real as scientific laws. This has deleterious effects on both practitioners and patients of psychiatry. It also, Greenberg notes, hurts research psychiatry: “They have to research categories that they know aren’t real!”

The most important changes in the update from 1994 are of formalizing the belief in a single “autism sprectrum” (rather than a combination of the distinct conditions of autism and Asperber’s), and the de-pathologizing of certain conditions like being transgender.

While the update to the DSM-V from the DSM-IV is being hailed as monumental and as having salutary effects on the problems noted above, Greenberg notes that the change is not as big as people think it is or as big as it needs to be.
Asked on Specific gravity to what extent the DSM-V is different from the DSM-IV, Greenberg replies: “It isn’t.”
Listen to the interview in full below:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


Up Next