By Ethan Watters, Pacific Standard Magazine, June 3, 2013
Transported to the world of the late 19th century, the psychiatric body would have virtually no choice but to include hysteria in the pages of its new volume. Women by the tens of thousands, after all, displayed the distinctive signs: convulsive fits, facial tics, spinal irritation, sensitivity to touch, and leg paralysis. Not a doctor in the Western world at the time would have failed to recognize the presentation. “The illness of our age is hysteria,” a French journalist wrote. “Everywhere one rubs elbows with it.”
Hysteria would have had to be included in our hypothetical 1880 DSM for the exact same reasons that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is included in the just-released DSM-5. The disorder clearly existed in a population and could be reliably distinguished, by experts and clinicians, from other constellations of symptoms. There were no reliable medical tests to distinguish hysteria from other illnesses then; the same is true of the disorders listed in the DSM-5 today. Practically speaking, the criteria by which something is declared a mental illness are virtually the same now as they were over a hundred years ago.
The DSM determines which mental disorders are worthy of insurance reimbursement, legal standing, and serious discussion in American life. That its diagnoses are not more scientific is, according to several prominent critics, a scandal. In a major blow to the APA’s dominance over mental-health diagnoses, Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently declared that his organization would no longer rely on the DSM as a guide to funding research. “The weakness is its lack of validity,” he wrote. “Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.” As an alternative, Insel called for the creation of a new, rival classification system based on genetics, brain imaging, and cognitive science [....]