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.


PTSD was recognized in the early 1970s and formalized in 1980, largely the result of work by and with US veterans of the war in Vietnam. Many people who think about these things consider this recognition to be a turning point in psychological diagnosis. In fact, one way of thinking about psychological diagnosis is that most of what we now call Mental Disorders are basically variants of PTSD–the ways that different people respond to different traumas. If the committee working on version V of the DSM were to humor us, they might rename the tome The North American and European Catalog of Post-Traumatic Stress Behavior Patterns Plus a Few Other Human Difficulties.

Here’s a fuzzy map from the wikipedia article, showing PTSD rates. The darker the red, the more PTSD, and the lighter the yellow, the less:

Here are the criteria, word for word, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR, pages 467 and 468:

Diagnostic criteria for 309.81 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

A. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:

(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others

(2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Note: In children, this may be expressed instead by disorganized or agitated behavior

B. The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in one (or more) of the following ways:

(1) recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. Note: In young children, repetitive play may occur in which themes or aspects of the trauma are expressed.

(2) recurrent distressing dreams of the event. Note: In children, there may be frightening dreams without recognizable content.

(3) acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur on awakening or when intoxicated). Note: In young children, trauma-specific reenactment may occur.

(4) intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event

(5) physiological reactivity on exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event

C. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by three (or More ) of the following:

(1) efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma

(2) efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma

(3) inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma

(4) markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities

(5) feeling of detachment or estrangement from others

(6) restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings)

(7) sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)

D. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before trauma), as indicated by two (or more) of the following:

(1) difficulty falling or staying asleep

(2) irritability or outbursts of anger

(3) difficulty concentrating

(4) hypervigilance

(5) exaggerated startle response

E. Duration of the disturbance (symptoms in Criteria B, C, and D) is more than 1 month.

F. The distrubance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Specify if:

Acute: if duration of symptoms is less than 3 months

Chronic: if duration of symptoms is 3 months or more

Specify if:

With Delayed Onset: if onset of symptoms is at least 6 months after the stressor

I read the following, by Steven Wolin, in Froma Walsh’s Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, and it brought tears to my eyes. The “DSM” he mentions is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the medical-style Bible of human psychological problems:

“Now, the DSM-IV was written by people , many of them psychologists, who have figured out every conceivable thing that can go wrong with us, which is very impressive. But I would like to suggest that it’s fundamentally, unintentionally, and insidiously violent to name someone by what’s wrong with them.”

I underlined that quote and thought I’d want to write something about it here. In class that week, it became clear that just about every other person in my cohort had underlined the same passage. We have all just taken a class on DSM diagnosis, because we will have to do it, out there in the world. Insurance companies won’t pay for problems that don’t have medical-sounding names. Major depressive disorder? Here, have some money. Isolated from any kind of supportive community, except for your mom, who you can’t stand for some reason? Hey, get a real problem, preferably one that we have a pill for.

Anyway, I think we all underlined that passage in part because it was so refreshing, after thinking so much about diagnostic categories. It’s also because that quote captures the spirit of the Couples and Family Therapy program we are in, and we were selected by our faculty because quotes like that would resonate with us. It’s also because it’s so dang true. When you hear how many mental health professionals talk about their clients, it can be awful. “I’ve got a Borderline at five o’clock,” as if what really matters about that human being is that their behavior fits the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder.