The publishers of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) currently hold a monopoly for classifying the concerns that lead people to seek mental health services. Recently on this blog, in a series of articles, I have been pointing out numerous faults of the DSM. To check out some examples of these, see my posts titled Name Calling by Psychiatrists: Is it Time to Put a Stop to it? and Are “Mental Illnesses” Really Potentially Helpful Tools?
In these critical posts, I have touched upon what I believe would be a distinctly better alternative to the DSM and argued that its creation, in breaking up this monopoly, would stimulate through creative competition, improved mental health services. Today, let’s take a closer look at this.
The Classification and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Concerns (CSM)
I called this alternative manual, the CSM. Its first chapter would begin by stating that the developers of the CSM fully recognize that individuality outruns any classification system. It is for this reason that the CSM does not seek to classify anyone. Instead, it classifies the expressed concerns of individuals seeking to have their concerns addressed by a mental health service provider.
The CSM begins from the perspective of the person seeking services. Because the expression of a mental health concern is a clearly observable event, by making it the event being classified in the CSM it solves the reliability problems that have been plaguing the DSM’s far more abstract concept of “mental disorders.”
After this statement, the CSM would clearly define its main construct:
A mental health concern occurs when a person seeking mental health services expresses to a mental health service provider a concern about any of these topics: behavior, emotion, mood, meaning of life, managing chronic pain, work, relationships, education, eating, cognition, and sleep.
This second chapter would be devoted to listing all of the concerns that professionals tend to hear from those seeking their services. Each concern would be given a code that would be used for various administrative purposes such as insurance forms and computer filing systems. And then there would be, for each concern, a list of related search terms that can be used to assist people who want to utilize a search engine to find all the relevant literature regarding that particular concern.
The list of concerns would be identified by two types of surveys. First, a large sample of mental health service providers would be asked to list the various concerns that they are asked to address in their practice without couching them in pathological language and to stick as closely as possible to the language used by those seeking their services. So, a concern about feeling blue might simply be classified “feeling blue,” rather than the DSM’s “Major Depressive Disorder;” a concern about a child’s above average activity level might simply be classified as “above average activity level” rather than the DSM’s “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” The second type of survey that would be used to generate the list of concerns that would appear in the CSM, would ask the membership of mental health service user organizations to list the various concerns that led them to seek mental health services. They, too, would be asked to avoid pathological terminology. For a number of practical reasons, a maximum of four words would be used for classifying each expressed concern in this chapter.
The final chapter of the CSM would be devoted to describing good practice guidelines for the use of psychological formulation, which is an assessment approach that is consistent with the CSM’s philosophy of not pathologizing individuals (see Johnstone and Kinderman). Psychological formulation provides an approach that expands on the brief expressed concerns of individuals by developing a narrative of several paragraphs. It can be defined as the process involving a mental health service user and a mental health service provider co-constructing a hypothesis or ‘best guess’ about the origins of the mental health service user’s concerns in the context of his or her relationships, social circumstances, life events, and the sense that he or she has made of them. Once it has been established what the concerns are, the immediate next question is, ‘How do we jointly understand these experiences, why they arose, and how we might be able to address them?’
Unlike diagnosis, this type of psychological formulation is not about making an expert judgement, but about working closely with the individual to develop a shared understanding which will evolve over time. And, unlike diagnosis, it draws attention to the service user’s resources and strengths in surviving what are nearly always very challenging life situations.
Defending the CSM Approach
Now, some believe that the psychological formulation is all that is needed as an alternative to the DSM and that there is no need to join it with any classification manual such as the CSM. But keep in mind that currently the DSM is used by insurance companies and other third party payers such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Insurance companies and these other third party payers have a form that must be filled out whenever someone seeks mental health services under their plan. This form has a little box that currently says, “Diagnosis.” In that box, mental health professionals must fill in the DSM code that corresponds to their so-called diagnosis of the person seeking services.
With the CSM proposal, all that we would be asking insurance companies to do differently in order to add value for their customers, is to slightly change that little box. Instead of just saying “Diagnosis” as it currently says, that box would add two little words, so it would end up saying “Diagnosis or Concern.” Then, when mental health professionals fill in the box, they would be given the choice to either write in the letters “DSM” and its code number that corresponds to its so-called diagnosis, or they would write the letters CSM and its code number that corresponds to the expressed concern. Mental health consumers would be given the choice to go to pathologizing mental health service providers or those using the CSM approach.
That’s all the change that would be required in order to increase value for insurance customers as well as other third party payers. And a major goal that all third party payers have is to increase value for their customers. The cost and effort for these payers would be minimum and we would have numerous testimonials from customers that documents that this change would be viewed as a significant improvement.
A psychological formulation approach, which requires several paragraphs to be completed, would be far too cumbersome for these payers to incorporate into their bureaucratic system. Moreover, a short word or phrase that could replace terms like “Major Depressive Disorder” or “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” is necessary for other practical forms of communication. For example, if I want to write a title for a research article, it would not be practical to insert into it several paragraphs. The psychological formulation approach would become far more widely used if it has some practical way of providing some short terms that are consistent with its non-pathologizing approach to conceptualizing an individual’s mental health concerns.
Some may argue that if everyone could go to a mental health professional merely to have their concerns addressed, then the system would soon be overloaded with clients and insurance policy costs would soar. Since insurance companies only cover people with more serious conditions known as “mental disorders,” so the argument goes, this limits the amount of people who can get to see a mental health professional.
Insurance and other third party payer executives are not stupid. They would readily understand, with a little explaining, that mental health service providers now using the current DSM do not turn anyone with a mental health insurance policy away who comes to their office expressing what I refer to as a mental health concern. Professionals are in the business of increasing their clients. Let’s be honest here; there are “close enough” matches throughout the DSM for anyone with mental health insurance coverage who currently wants mental health services to get it.
Here’s another reason why the CSM would improve the psychological formulation approach. In pretty much any of the advanced countries in the world, there is a rather large segment of the population that believes science has been an enormous help advancing our knowledge. The CSM, as already mentioned, is even more consistent with principles of science than the DSM because it solves the problem of reliability that has been a mess with the DSM. And for science minded people, each branch of science must have a system of classification that helps to organize concepts, to retrieve relevant research, and to be useful in formulating programs of research. In my view, the pairing of psychological formulation with the CSM’s list of brief descriptors of mental health concerns will fit well with this worldview.
And so, these are some of my arguments for uniting in the CSM proposal a classification system and the psychological formulation proposal. Together, both can clearly improve value for consumers of mental health services by providing a new choice. The CSM is more consistent with principles of science. It is close enough to the worldview and administrative requirements of all of the stakeholders in the mental health field, thus reducing resistance that often comes with proposed changes. And the creation of the CSM would break up the DSM monopoly, thereby spurring creative approaches for understanding the nature of anguish, sadness and tears.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.