I don’t believe in mental illness (or, rewriting the DSM)

I don’t particularly believe in DID, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or post traumatic stress disorder. I don’t believe in mental illnesses as parallels of physical diseases – cholera is caused by a bacteria – schizophrenia is caused by faulty genes. I believe in people’s experiences. I believe that the pain, confusion, suffering, terror, and risks of what we have called mental illness are real. I believe that people experience multiplicity, mania, hallucinations, tics. But the way we understand them – as symptoms of illness, the process of diagnosis, categorisation, research, and treatment – I’m unimpressed.

I recently read a dark and brilliant review of the DSM by Sam Kriss – written as if the manual was in fact a dystopian novel. It is brilliant, sad, and moving.

The DSM is the ‘psychiatrists Bible’, a massive reference of all the diagnoses we hear about; depression, bipolar, schizophrenia. In my opinion it is a massive project started for very legitimate reasons that has become a horrifying millstone around the necks of many of us.

Every few years it is re-written, updated, with much argument. A diagnosis is removed, or several collapsed together. A dozen or a hundred are added. A few jump categories. A few thousand people are startled to wake up one morning and find their condition doesn’t exist any more. A considerable number of the conditions are very rarely diagnosed, particularly in poorer areas (at least locally) where Depression and Anxiety are the diagnoses favoured by doctors who are not even aware of most of the rest of the options.

The idea behind a manual isn’t a bad one, to my mind. Language is important. Having words for experiences can be profound, the difference between mute suffering and solidarity and strength in the face of adversity. Our diagnostic manuals (the DSM and the ICD) were developed initially as a way of communicating between shrinks. A shorthand for what a patient was struggling with. It was important to define the terms because shrinks working independently, separated by continents, were starting to use the same words to describe vastly different experiences. We were beginning to explore the idea of madness, to break it down and tease it apart and discover that it was not all the one thing but instead many different things. We built new words for these new ideas and then needed to secure their meanings so that the language was useful.

We modelled the language upon the medical language of disease, with the expectation that the same cause and effect approach would be helpful. This causes that. The reality of human psychology is at times, highly predictable. We share certain needs, certain fears are near-universal, certain responses instinctive to most of us. But we are also complex. We have drafted massive tomes about abnormal psychology and have little idea of what, if anything, is left to be understood about normal psychology. We are beginning to grasp the frustrating reality that more than one cause can have the same effect – people develop eating disorders through grief, dissociation, fixation on weight, and chronic digestive diseases. We are beginning to understand that one cause can have different effects – some people with dissociation struggle with eating disorder issues, others with chronic sensory losses, memory issues, or depression. As we attempt to capture these nuances, our manuals get thicker and thicker.

With thicker manuals comes a big issue – more and more human behaviour is gathered into this category of ‘abnormal’. Psychological illness, injury, and normal functioning become tangled. Defining abnormal becomes nearly impossible. For example; if more than 70% of people who suffer three major life stressors in a year will struggle with an episode of depression, is this a normal or abnormal process?

Furthermore, is it an illness? Physically sick people who are fighting infection experience depression during the illness because they should be resting to heal. Are we able anymore to delineate between depression as something that is harming us, sucking the life from us, killing our joy, and the lethargy and pain and inward gaze of grief?

Increasingly mental illness becomes fuzzy, difficult to define. Another marker of ‘abnormal’ has been ‘unusual’. This is why being gay was in the DSM. If more people are straight then gay, doesn’t that make gay abnormal? The dangers of defining human existence by the tastes and appetites of the majority are such that almost certainly all of us are in some way ‘abnormal’, and the cost of this, the rejection of so many people from this hallowed goal of normality, are massive.

Abnormal is often shorthand for extreme. Ah! they say, you simply fail to understand the spectrum! Yes we all experience a little of this and of that, but until you’ve seen mania full blown, an acute psychotic episode, someone so debilitated by anxiety they cannot leave their house, you simply can’t appreciate what real mental illness looks like. This definition seems to work until you look at other examples of ‘extreme behaviours’, at social activists who put their lives at risk for a cause they are passionate about, at kids moving across the country to have a chance to train in the artform they eat and breathe, all the hope and joy and optimism of a couple in love and about to get married. Extreme can be dangerous, can be horrifying and destructive. But its also the place of hope for so many, their centre, their joy.

Abnormal can be shorthand for pain. When I write things like “I don’t believe in mental illnesses” that does NOT mean that I think people are making their experiences up, that they’re weak, lazy, vain, or self indulgent, or that there is not a real, overwhelming experience of profound fear and pain that can destroy people’s lives. The suffering is absolutely, definitely real. I have been there myself, I have been there as others have been broken or battered by it. I don’t actually believe we need a shorthand for pain. People use their own language to describe their experiences. They talk about being broken hearted, or empty, about feeling like their life is on fire, about the void that eats them alive at 3am when all the world is sleeping. A lot of the reason our manuals remain in such use is simply that we have organised our systems of care around this process of diagnosis. It’s a way of discerning those who need help. But I have a massive problem with the kind of help that starts by assuming there is something wrong with the person in pain. Sometimes whatever form the suffering takes does come out of the sky like lightning without warning and seemingly without sense. For others, suffering comes out of loss, trauma, loneliness – things that always cause people pain. There is nothing wrong with someone who hurts when they are harmed. It should be possible to grieve, to suffer, to need time off, to recover, without signing up to the idea that this is wrong and there is something wrong with you. As I’ve said before, if the process of mental health is about not hurting anymore, no matter what, then we’re trying to create psychopaths, not support humans.

‘Abnormal’ is often these days simply a way of referring to anyone who needs time off work or income support. Which again, is heartbreaking. It’s one of the reasons that deeply grieving people are now able to be diagnosed with depressive or adjustment disorders – because without this label of illness doctors are unable to compassionately exempt them from work or support them to access counselling or other treatments. Mental health as an idea starts to become twisted into something hyper-individualistic; someone who experiences none of the extremes of the human experience and never needs help from anyone to navigate life.

The DSM goes beyond a dictionary of terms because it links descriptions of single experiences together into syndromes, collections of symptoms that are given a diagnosis. These clusters shape diagnosis, treatment, and research. For some people, the cluster is a very good fit, describing all of their concerns and neither leaving something out nor adding something in. For many, they are not broad enough, so in order to capture all of the troubling experiences, they wind up with many diagnoses. Because of the medical model framework, this is seen by most as a sign that this person is sicker than someone with only one – or no diagnoses, when it doesn’t indicate anything than not fitting the common clusters! For some, the diagnoses are wildly inappropriate, as they have only one or two markers but wind up being diagnosed with the whole set in a dangerous prediction of their future experiences.

Some of the clusters are so poorly defined that the people group described by them vary so widely meaningful research is nearly impossible. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder requires 5 of 9 symptoms to be significantly present. Some people have all 9, some have one set of 5, others have the remaining four and a single overlapping symptom! To make diagnosis of BPD extra complex, many people who have experienced particularly childhood trauma will have some or all of these experiences for some years, and many people in current life crises will experience them also – yet this disorder describes an enduring pattern that plays out over many years. My experience has been that most young, distressed women in the mental health system will receive this diagnosis at some point. That is NOT to suggest that people don’t struggle with these issues long term, clearly many people do and some are my dear friends! But how the heck are we using one term for two people who potentially share a single experience in common?

Conversely, some diagnoses are defined so tightly that hardly anyone fits. Eating disorders can be like this, where a single symptom such as menstruation can see a woman bounce between one diagnosis and another and back again. In some categories the diagnoses are so narrowly constructed that most people who are struggling with a major issue in that area are given the catch all ‘not otherwise specified’ diagnosis. Which makes me wonder how well we are doing at the initial goal of creating a useful language for people.

The clusters exist for a reason – because they are commonly observed. But there’s two obvious dangers with grouping experiences like this. The first is that ‘commonly observed’ is going to not fit some people. Maybe even a lot of people. Which would be less of a big deal if we treated these syndromes like syndromes, but we don’t. We treat them as scientifically valid disease entities, which is a huge problem when someone doesn’t fit. Generally we start stacking them, which is similar to the effect on the stigma the person experiences. Two diagnoses is twice as bad as one when you have to prove you’re ‘well’ enough to work. Some people wind up with ten or more, each of which is confusing, depressing, and further alienating them from any sense that they might just be a ‘normal’ human having a tough time.

The second major risk with these clusters is the grouping of cause and effect, the mixing up of correlation and causation. For example, schizophrenia, which links experiences such as hallucinations to others such as dulled emotional expression or withdrawing from relationships. Each of these is seen to be part of this disease and yet one can cause the other, can have nothing to do with the other, or might not even be present for someone. Isolation due to bullying makes children more vulnerable to psychosis, for example, but in this case the trauma is a a key cause of the isolation, and both the trauma and the isolation are triggering the psychosis. People who experience hallucinations often find their close relationships become a mindfield of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and power battles about how to navigate the experience. Dulled emotional responsiveness is a common effect of feeling stuck in a double bind. Some voice hearers have no other symptoms of schizophrenia yet find themselves with that diagnosis for the simple reason that no other ‘hears voices but isn’t harmed or impaired’ category exists. Just because things may occur together does not make them all symptoms of a disease. Even more importantly – we cannot easily even perceive things that fall outside of our categories and language, which is why the idea of hearing voices meaning severe impairment has lingered on for so long – voice hearers who are not distressed or impaired don’t tend to volunteer to go round to their local shrink and talk about it!

I agree that we need a language, but I disagree that the DSM provides a good one. Utterly embedded in a language of deficits and loss, there’s little room for individual experience, for hope, for complexity or nuance. Abnormal becomes nebulous, and normal becomes a flatland of limited emotional range reserved for those to whom little has ever happened. Something terrifying happens when people are seen through this lens.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can structure things differently. Ron Coleman wrote his own DSM Zero, a blank book for people to fill in themselves. Another shrink who’s name I can’t recall said in his mind, the entire DSM could be summed up to three states: “I feel bad, I feel crazy, or I make other people feel bad or crazy.” The rest was merely details. The underlying assumptions of the DSM about sanity and madness, about what is normal, what is human, and where the fault lies when people are suffering, are ones I find toxic. They dislocate people like me from my own self, from my own language and from my sense of being human and part of humanity. We can pull apart the edifice we have created and build something new, the way I have done for myself in understanding my experiences of multiplicity and psychosis. Personally my suggestion is to define terms but not cluster experiences, to make support possible without indicating whether ‘pathology’ is internal or external (ie whether the person is needing extra support because of things happening inside them or to them), and to be willing to use and respect the common terms people find helpful instead of forcing them to learn a new language of complex pseudo scientific terms. I think it’s okay to say broken hearted instead of depressed, or empty and chaotic instead of borderline. I think research becomes more useful when it looks at experiences instead of diseases formed of clusters of experiences, and I think those of us who live outside the bounds of so-called ‘normal’ are more likely to find hope and joy when we aren’t sold a story about ourselves that’s saturated in ideas of mental deficiency and impairment.