The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a giant catalog of behaviors and other complaints that cause people to suffer psychologically. If a person claims or admits to having a constellation of problems which fits one of the categories in the DSM, they can be diagnosed with that Mental Disorder. Most people who make these diagnoses as part of their living take this process very seriously, distinguishing between subtypes of ADHD in a client with the same seriousness as a doctor distinguishing between subtypes of breast cancer in a patient. This book has the answers. It is like the Bible for mental health diagnosticians.

Every decade or so, we get a new version of our Bible. Here are the six versions we’ve had since 1958.


We are about to get a new version this spring. This change-over is both exciting and awkward in a way that I don’t imagine new versions of other Bibles can be. When a new version of the Christian Bible come out, I imagine that the impact is mostly academic, and the new version may or may not catch on. With a new DSM, there is no choice for diagnosticians or their clients. In 1973, you could diagnose someone with Homosexuality Disorder. In 1975, you could not. The debate was over.

More often than disappearing, new disorders become available. Asperger’s Disorder, for example, appeared in version IV, in 1994. At other times the categories change in big ways, such as the much-talked-about removal of Asperger’s Disorder in the upcoming version V in favor of a more inclusive “Autism Spectrum.”

The awkwardness of this process is especially salient to me, just starting my internship as a family therapist. Since I live in California, I must do my 3,000 client-contact hours for licensure at a community clinic, which means I have to diagnose each of my clients with a qualifying Mental Disorder. To that end, I have been boning up on my diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV-TRI have to be really good at this to get the resources flowing for my clients. At the same time, I am aware that in a matter of weeks I will be learning not only new criteria and new Mental Disorders, but a whole new diagnostic process spelled out in the DSM-V.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is revised every decade or so, and a revision is under way right now. Up until recently, there has been criticism that the proceedings were taking place in secret. This is not unusual, as I understand it, but it is significant for many people. Mental-health clinicians, for example, have to use the diagnostic categories in the DSM to label their clients, and if the categories and descriptions listed don’t coincide with their experiences or beliefs, this can be quite difficult. It is significant for mental-health clients, too, for complementary and even more personal reasons. What will happen to your diagnosis? In? Out? Changed? These decisions have a big impact on social issues, like stigma, and economic issues, like what insurance companies will pay for.

The DSM committee is proposing, for example, to subsume the diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder into Autism Disorder. This seems to make a lot of sense, unless you or your child is benefiting from the existence of Asperger’s because of insurance company rules, state regulations, or other regulatory factors.

The content of the DSM is important to people for political reasons, too. For example, the third revision of the DSM eliminated homosexuality as a mental disorder. That was in 1973, for the DSM-III. (We’ve since had the DSM-III-R, DSM-IV, and DSM-IV-TR. They are currently working on the DSM-V.) It may be hard to believe that being gay was an official Mental Disorder, but it was. People were even lobotomized for it: Here, let me “help” you with that unnatural sexual attraction by forcing an icepick in over one of your eyes, through your skull, to twist it in your brain. The removal of homosexuality from the DSM was very controversial in its day, but no one credible is fighting for it to go back in.

That is to say, the DSM can reflect the changing mores of society, which in turn influences the way society sees mental health and illness. This process can effect the quality of a lot of our lives. And now the DSM committee has revealed the changes they are contemplating and is asking for feedback. This is from their website:

“Your input, whether you are a clinician, a researcher, an administrator, or a person/family member affected by a mental disorder, is important to us.  We thank you for taking part in this historic process and look forward to receiving your feedback.”

You almost certainly fall into one of those categories. Take part in this opportunity! Of course, our input being “important” to them does not mean they will pay attention to it, but it can’t hurt to try. The worst that can happen is that you will be better informed about your mental-health system. Here are the categories that they are considering changes in. Click on them to read the proposed changes. To submit feedback, you have to register with them, but it only takes a minute:

Structural, Cross-Cutting, and General Classification Issues for DSM-5
Disorders Usually First Diagnosed in Infancy, Childhood, or Adolescence
Delirium, Dementia, Amnestic, and Other Cognitive Disorders
Mental Disorders Due to a General Medical Condition Not Elsewhere Classified
Substance-Related Disorders
Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders
Mood Disorders
Anxiety Disorders
Somatoform Disorders
Factitious Disorders
Dissociative Disorders
Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders
Eating Disorders
Sleep Disorders
Impulse-Control Disorders Not Elsewhere Classified
Adjustment Disorders
Personality Disorders
Other Conditions that May Be the Focus of Clinical Attention