“@MHRUKCharity: Worried you might have #bipolardisorder? See these FAQs: http://t.co/xktQgsaEQx" No, please don't! There's no such 'illness'
— Lucy Johnstone (@ClinpsychLucy) July 6, 2013
May called out Time to Change on their use of "Mental Illness":
'Mental illness' is a misleading term why do you promote it when it itself creates stigma? @TimetoChange why not demedicalise confusion?
— Rufus May (@Rufusmay) July 15, 2013
This is not the first occassion for such a debate, Lucy Johnstone and Mind had this exchage earlier in the year:
What are we to make of all this? The blogger and mental health nurse Phil Dore recently called it an "ideological pissing contest" (great phrase that) in a blog post concluding that Johnstone and May (and others) should pick their battles elsewhere. I am entirely sympathetic to this view, but in this post I would like to go a little bit further and ponder if there even is a valid battle to be picked.
The form of Johnstone and May's criticism is that these disorders "don't exist". Both clinicians are motivated by an admirable desire to raise consciousness of the contingent nature of DSM's construction. However, such a simple and categorical statement as "DSM Disorder X does not exist" is complicated by the fact that it has at least three meanings:
- The categories of the DSM do not exist in the sense that there is no biological illness process to which they can be said to refer.
- The categories of the DSM do not exist in the sense that there is no emotional/psychological process/phenomenon to which they refer.
- The categories of the DSM do not exist in the sense that nobody uses them; service users do not get told they have them; services and interventions are not planned on the basis of them and they are not used to design and conduct clinical research.
Service Users and others who seek support & information from a mental health charity might reasonably expect to be able to find out what is known about the problem classification terms that they have heard in use. Whatever we think of those terms, there is a wealth of information available about which groups of problems are and are not amenable to which sorts of support. Off the top of my head:
- People diagnosed with psychotic-problems should be able (without launching into a literature review) to find out that CBT has limited efficacy, but that research is ongoing and it is available on the NHS if they wish to try it for themselves. There are other psychological interventions being researched which may have better outcomes.
- People with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder should be able to find out (without scouring the tedious NICE guidelines) that unless they are have received in-patient DBT, they haven't yet had exposure to one of the most intensive psychological interventions available on the NHS.
- People with a diagnosis of depression should be able to discover (without having to delve into the enormous "common factors" literature) that a very wide range of psychological therapies have been effective in similar cases and are worth pursuing. If they don't like CBT, they can advocate for an alternative approach.
I say all this not because I seek to "save" the medical model (whatever that even is), but because I seek to complicate the criticisms and defend, on pragmatic grounds, the actions of these charities. Given the present confusion about the ontological nature of mental health problems, all recipients of a diagnosis should certainly be offered the information that there are good reasons to call the classifications into question and a lively debate about whether they are even appropriate. To somehow "ban" DSM terms from the public discourse would not be as helpful a step as it first appears; some people would be delighted, others profoundly alienated. It remains unclear why some service users find diagnoses powerfully explanatory while others reject them altogether. For as long as we are stuck with a muddled mix of languages in which to discuss these issues, the dogmatic promotion of "one true God" (Phil Dore's phrase again) is entirely premature.