Home » Life » Is life a disease? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – fifth edition (DSM-5)

Is life a disease? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – fifth edition (DSM-5)


Anne Cooke and John McGowan A new edition of the ‘dictionary’ of mental illnesses was published this year – the catchily named, DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, fifth edition). Compared to its predecessors, it classifies many more types of behaviour as ‘mental disorders’.

For example, binge eating is now a disease, and you may also be categorised as mentally ill if you spend too long in front of your computer, if you are shy, or if you feel just feel sad.
Each edition of the DSM introduces us to new illnesses.
  • The first edition, published in 1952, was 132 pages long.
  • The 1987 edition was 569 pages a
  • The 2013 edition as it has 1000.John McGowan and Anne Cooke
Its publication has provoked fierce arguments. Advocates say how important it is that illnesses are identified and treated. Critics claim that that it will lead to millions of us being unnecessarily labelled as sick and put on drugs. Some even believe that many of the conditions are simply inventions dreamed up for the benefit of pharmaceutical giants. W
Anne and John will introduce the main issues, and ask the question, ‘Is life a disease?’
Anne and John both blog regularly at Discursive of Tunbridge Wells. You can also follow them on Twitter (@CCCUAppPsy).

My view is that we should think of disease as the status quo, that  we all have something wrong with us, that this variety is part of what makes us human – we are not a troop of baboons, rather we are 7 billion lonely people, each unique, with very different brains, but also different responses to and vulnerabilities to disease. Modern science and computing in particular allows these conditions to be identified; many more such patterns will become clear as data is streamed into computers for analysis from people wearing or ingesting smart medical devices.

If this isn’t a hypothesis that has been tested maybe I should take a look?

The ‘error’ surely is to think we can provide everyone with ‘perfect health’ – what will it do to us if all our ‘problems’ are ironed out? Will it make us less inventive? Do we have to live to 120? We need to struggle in order to progress – everything about the development of homo sapiens sapiens has been in response to problems, dangers, disease and events. I guess we’ll just keep coming up with or creating new problems, in any case, even if we all had perfect health our brains – how wired during foetal development, and then what we are exposed to as we grow up, despite aspects of tribalism, makes for further difference.
Yes, life is a disease.
And the day we think we have eradicated all disease we or nature will come up with something new. In fact, I think if you had a population of 1000 people with no perceived health problems at all that within a few months one or more of them would develop some kind of psychosis – become a hypochondriac or self-harm or develop a Messiah complex just to ensure that the community had difference, a catalyst as it were, within it.
The DSM probably says the the joker/clown or comedian is a disease – a narcissistic craving for attention and adulation?
Anne Cooke is a clinical psychologist who has spent many years working in the NHS with people who are diagnosed as mentally ill. She works at Canterbury Christ Church University, training clinical psychologists for the NHS. She is currently editing a second edition of the British Psychological Society’s report ‘Understanding Psychosis’ and is interested in the way that we as a society think about and respond to emotional distress.
John McGowan is also a Clinical Psychologist. Like Anne has followed many years in the NHS by moving to academia and training clinical psychologists. As well as conducting research into self-harm and suicide he is currently editing a new British Psychological Society Report on Depression. He has written for The Guardian, the Health Service Journal and (most significantly) is an occasional columnist for Viva Lewes.
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