Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gosh Darn Those Doctors, or, A Problem with the DSM-5 Committee That No One Seems to Talk About

The DSM-5 has been out for a few months now, and some articles on the Internet may lead you to believe it's a load of garbage out to ruin what has been known for thousands of years as normalcy. Or at best, a book of codes that allows us mental health people to actually get some money so we can afford light bulbs for our offices and toner for the copy machines we use to duplicate worksheets.

For the those who don't know what I'm talking about - and I wonder if you've only recently gained access to the Internet if that is the true - the DSM-5 is the abbreviation for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. It's a gigantic book with criteria for psychiatric diagnoses, formed by a committee of psychiatrists in the American Psychiatric Association who have extensive research experience (and maybe one or two psychologists to get some non-physician representation). It's usually called "The DSM." I've also heard it referred to as "The Bible of Psychiatry," despite a lack of detailed portrayals of human nature, potential solutions to human suffering, and divine inspiration. While it was originally written by psychiatrists for psychiatry research (Hence the "Statistical" part of the title), it has now turned into a framework for use by mental health professionals in clinical practice. And insurance companies. And court systems. And school systems. And the Social Security Administration. And..

I haven't read the thing yet. I've read the DSM-IV-TR (previous edition) twice for two different classes - and by twice I mean the whole thing twice. The DSM-5 criticisms in the media sound like criticisms one could make of the DSM-IV-TR: research ranging from solid to questionable, vague criteria with little description of what characteristics look like "in the real world," norms based on people of Western European descent, and a dash of sexism (I'm looking at you, "personality disorder" criteria). I don't plan on reading the thing until I can get a dirt cheap international edition on eBay, and I don't intend to go into great criticism of the latest work until I actually read it.

What I'm going to talk about today is the large number of committee members receiving grants and honoraria from pharmaceutical companies. You know what?

I actually sympathize with the psychiatrists.

Now, pharmaceutical company funding is a problem. Medication has been an effective tool in mental health recovery for many people when used ethically. It was a major contribution to deinstitutionalization and reducing horrendous psychiatric hospital conditions. I don't have a problem with simply the existence of pharmaceuticals or companies that produce medication for a profit. But those little grants influence prescribing Really Expensive Medication, which isn't necessarily anymore effective or tolerable than cheaper medication prescribed at therapeutic (read: not for chemical restraint) doses. Really Expensive Medication tends to contribute to high insurance copays and strapped public mental health entities, and should be reserved for situations in which it is the best choice: someone has had no success with cheaper medications, evidence suggests the Really Expensive Medication is ideal given the person's current challenges, age, sex, etc.

So why do I sympathize with these guys if they are potentially prescribing and diagnosing based on some randomness a drug rep with a medieval studies degree said over sandwiches a few years back as well as a bunch of Pharma grant applications they probably didn't even write?

Well, funding for mental health research, education, and social services isn't stellar. It's hard to do research when you have no money. It's hard to provide education to the public when you have no money. It's hard to implement community programming and medical services when you have no money.

How do we raise money? I don't see any pastel ribbons in our future. Mental health challenges still suffer from stigma, are hard to quantify, and people tend to wonder if they exist at all. Grant funding from nonprofit (and presumably less biased) organizations is limited (I say this as someone who did a stint in fundraising). Why throw money at a nebulous concept, the public cries? And thus Pharma to the rescue.

The idealistic side of me says some of these physicians accept funding from these companies with questionable ethics because they think it is the best means to further our understanding of mental health. They're not going to get enough money elsewhere. Mental health tends to be first cut, last funded when it comes to government priorities. It costs money to do interviews, brain imaging, writing, education, and everything else academic psychiatrists do. Academia doesn't always pay that great, either, and it can take years before one is out of adjunct land after the years of schooling. I think people do the best they can in order survive, and funding is survival for this branch of psychiatry.

That said, why do they put up with the abysmal state of mental health funding? Pharmaceutical grants have produced good at times, but they perpetuate inadequate funding by "picking up the slack" for government entities. Rather than tolerate the current system, could it be better to take periodic breaks from research to focus on advocating for government funding that is on par with funding for other health needs? Psychiatrists are honestly at the top of mental health food chain whether we like it or not, and more of those who are able to advocate need to utilize their acceptance by the government as the authorities on mental health identification and biological treatment in order to put pressure on said government to step up and provide the means to facilitate productive research outcomes.Which should include some more of what those wild psychoneursomethingorother people are doing, light therapy, personality, multiculturalism, and whatever else that could use some of the attention currently occupied by our friends at Pharma.

Rather than cut funding altogether as is current practice, perhaps we should work towards not actually needing current amounts of funding via prevention, education, and providing better treatment based on sound research. Which would initially take more funding, but you have to spend money to make money, right?

I suspect physicians on the DSM committee didn't go into medicine with the intent to become drug company pawns. Again, idealist in me. Maybe it starts with one those dry CME things with GlaxoSmithKline backing resulting in some supernatural entity a la The Ghost of Christmas Future talking about the sky falling if generic lamotrigine is prescribed over Lamictal XR because a 38 hour half-life is just too short, I don't know.

On a final note, other disciplines share responsibility in improving services - not just our friends on the DSM committee. In the spirit of interdisciplinary practice and social justice, all mental health professions should join those already involved in advocacy regardless of their professional identity in order to demand resources to better serve everyone. The more the merrier, right?

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