Counselling session

13 February 2020

Academic joins international task force calling for new look at psychiatric diagnosis

Anne Cooke, Principal Lecturer and Director of the University's Doctoral Programme in Clinical Psychology, is working with an international task force to address major concerns about psychiatric diagnostic manuals.

An international task force of the American Psychological Association’s Division 32: Society for Humanistic Psychology has issued a statement detailing concerns about major psychiatric diagnostic manuals.

In an open letter already endorsed by leading international mental health organisations, the task force calls for significant changes to our diagnostic systems to combat the continued and continuous medicalisation of our natural and normal emotional responses. 

This over-medicalisation has led to a situation where one in five Americans now takes a psychiatric drug, with widespread problems of dependence, and therefore physical and psychological harm. The United Nations Special Rapporteur Dr Dainius Pūras has pointed out that “the excessive use of diagnostic categories [can] lead to excessive medicalisation.”

The challenge issued by the letters’ authors addressed the leaders of the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and others developing psychiatric diagnostic manuals. In the letter they ask these leaders to reflect on the purpose and aim of diagnostic systems (as a mechanism for the marketing of medications and professions versus a genuine attempt to improve wellbeing), address financial conflicts of interest, permit democratic oversight and governance, and incorporate a breadth of scientific and philosophical perspectives.

"Seeing certain experiences and painful emotions as symptoms of mental illness is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages. In this open letter we make it clear that there are a variety of valid perspectives that deserve to be given consideration. There is a risk that medicalisation can be a form of victim-blaming, for example when diagnostic labels are applied to people in difficult situations or who have experienced painful life events."

Anne Cooke

Sarah Kamens, Co-Chair of the task force and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, said: “Researchers have recently proposed the idea of a “paradigm shift” in psychiatric diagnosis. Our current paradigm is primarily focused on identifying biomarkers for mental distress, and efforts to fix or improve this paradigm do not constitute “shifts.” A true paradigm shift would "diagnose" our condition as biological beings who experience social problems that make us suffer. Imagine a diagnostic system centred on experiences like poverty, homelessness, and discrimination. Now that would be a paradigm shift.”

The open letter to the leaders of the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization can be found here



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Last edited: 15/01/2020 11:19:00