Where There’s Smoke …

As much as 4 ½ years before the publication of the DSM-5, there was growing public criticism of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the process they used to develop it. The amazing thing about this criticism is that it was from within the ranks of psychiatry itself … by psychiatrists who had been in charge of previous revisions of the DSM.

In a 2008 article, Benedict Carey of the New York Times pointed out the importance of the DSM as a “medical guidebook and a cultural institution.” It is used to help doctors make diagnoses and to provide diagnostic codes to insurance companies. The National Institute of Mental Health made the use of DSM criteria a requirement for funding research. But for the first time, the APA required its DSM contributors to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Research psychiatrist Robert Spitzer said that when he first heard about the agreement, he went “bonkers.” Spitzer said: “Transparency is necessary if the document is to have credibility, and, in time, you’re going to have people complaining all over the place that they didn’t have the opportunity to challenge anything.”

Robert Spitzer, the chair of the “landmark” third edition of the DSM, has been hailed as the rescuer or savior of psychiatry. Allen Frances, the chair of the 4th edition of the DSM said in his book, Saving Normal, that Spitzer was a rare man. “Without Robert Spitzer, psychiatry might have become increasingly irrelevant.” Even critics of modern psychiatric diagnosis, such the authors of the book Mad Science, acknowledge Spitzer’s importance to psychiatry: “Robert Spitzer was a most unlikely rescuer of American psychiatry.”

On June 26, 2009, Frances published an article in the Psychiatric Times where he identified what he saw a grave problems with the DSM-5. He also was critical of the lack of transparency. Pointing to his own efforts with the DSM-IV, he said their goal had been to ensure that everyone would understand what they were doing and how they were going about it. “There was explicit accountability for decision making on all changes.” He cautioned against the stated ambition to effect a “paradigm shift” in psychiatric diagnosis with the DSM-5.

So long as psychiatric diagnosis is stuck at its current descriptive level, there is little to be gained and much to be lost in frequently and arbitrarily changing the system. Descriptive diagnosis should remain fairly stable until, disorder by disorder, we gradually attain a more fundamental and explanatory understanding of causality.

Frances specified his concerns with the DSM-5 process, which included the following: 1) there was no scientific basis to justify a paradigm shift in psychiatric diagnosis at this time; 2) there was a failure to provide clear methodological guidelines on the level of empirical support for the changes; 3) there was a failure to be open to wide scrutiny and useful criticism; 4) there was a failure to set and meet clear timelines; there was a likelihood that time pressure would lead to an unconsidered rush on last-minute decisions.

The members of the APA working on the DSM-5, including the DSM-5 Chair, David Kupfer, responded APA to Frances on July 1, 2009. They suggested that both Spitzer and Frances were repeating “factual errors and assumptions” about the development of the DSM-5. After their refutation of the concerns expressed by Frances, they stated:

Both Dr. Frances and Dr. Spitzer have more than a personal “pride of authorship” interest in preserving the DSM-IV and its related case book and study products. Both continue to receive royalties on DSM-IV associated products. The fact that Dr. Frances was informed at the APA Annual Meeting last month that subsequent editions of his DSM-IV associated products would cease when the new edition is finalized, should be considered when evaluating his critique and its timing.

Robert Spitzer responded to the criticisms raised about Allen Frances and himself on July 2, 2009. Spitzer noted how the DSM-5 debate had taken an ugly turn, by suggesting that he and Frances were critiquing the DSM for financial reasons. He limited his comments to what he saw as the core issue of transparency. After raising a series of questions with regard to the opaqueness and “empty rhetoric” on the DSM-5 as the most open and inclusive DSM ever, Spitzer saw two possible reasons for the lack of transparency. First, the answers to his questions were known, but for some reason, the DSM leadership was withholding it; perhaps to shield themselves from criticisms. A second possibility was that the DSM-5 leadership didn’t know the answers to his questions. “Given their plan to publish DSM-V in May 2012, if the second possibility is the case, it is inconceivable that this publication deadline could realistically be met. “

Both Spitzer and Frances continued their challenges to the process of review and approval of the DSM-5 by the APA and gained more support and even some victories. You can also read a more detailed description of the dispute here. The publication of the DSM-5 was delayed until May of 2013, but the controversy merely grew. Allen Frances became one of the most vocal critics of the DSM-5, with multiple blogs and articles looking at the problems and concerns. He’s even written two books, Saving Normal and Essentials of Psychiatric Diagnosis as a result of this controversy. You can scroll through some of his articles on the Huffington Post for starters.

Oh and with regard to the veiled accusation of Spitzer and Frances criticizing the DSM-5 for financial reasons, David Kupfer, Chair of the DSM-5 Task Force, has been outed for failing to report financial interests in Adaptive Testing Technologies, a company that designs tests and implements large scale adaptive testing systems for mental health assessment. After an investigation, the APA said (Letter-to-Assembly-20140114.pdf): “Dr. Kupfer should have disclosed to APA his interest in PAI in 2012.” However, it did not find that his interest in PAI had any influence on DSM-5’s inclusion of dimensional measures for further study in Section 3. One blogger, 1 Boring Old Man said:

It seems like Dr. Kupfer et al. are pursuing a strategy of only acknowledging this particular Conflict of Interest when forced, as in the situation with JAMA Psychiatry, and avoiding talking about it otherwise – mirrored so far by the APA President and Board of Trustees.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.