Behaving badly has disorder to call its own

Ever-growing list of mental illnesses met by skepticism

July 17, 2006|By CHRIS EMERY | CHRIS EMERY,SUN REPORTER

When researchers announced that 16 million Americans who fly into occasional fits of unwarranted rage may suffer from a mental illness called "intermittent explosive disorder," the diagnosis drew its share of hoots and howls.

"Your grandmother would say these are bad folks who can't control their temper, and she would be right," said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, an outspoken schizophrenia expert alarmed by the ever-expanding list of behaviors and attitudes branded as illnesses.

Torrey and other critics point to the volume that doctors use to determine mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as evidence that the world is out of control.

When it was first published in 1952, the DSM identified about 100 official mental disorders. Today, it certifies roughly 375.

Intermittent explosive disorder became the latest of those to reach the public consciousness in June, when a study of the syndrome, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was released.

Newspaper columnists and others around the country exploded in skepticism at its conclusions.

"Is it me, or does it seem like good old-fashioned bad behavior - rudeness, obsession, violence - is being increasingly explained away by doctors and pharmaceutical companies as some kind of mental illness du jour?" asked columnist Daniel Vasquez in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

In Georgia, a headline in The Augusta Chronicle read, "Jerks get disorder of their own."

While many critics echoed the derision historically reserved for mental illness, some mental health experts - including Torrey - are also skeptical.

"It's not a well-defined entity," Torrey said of IED. At the heart of his concern is a question mental health providers have long debated: When does a behavior or emotion cross the line from normal - however eccentric or undesirable - to become an illness?

What they decide affects many aspects of American life, ranging from criminal trials to decisions on who gets treatment and disability benefits for mental illness.

The most visible venue for that debate is the DSM, the primary reference for mental health professionals. When the American Psychiatric Association revises the manual every few years, doctors have to decide what disorders will be included.

Although the DSM's definitions of mental disorders are only guidelines, they influence courts, insurance companies and government agencies.

Although it was virtually unknown to the public before the June report, IED has been used as a legal defense in murder, assault and intimidation cases.

In a 1993 trial, an Oregon man who attacked his dentist during a tooth extraction appealed his assault conviction by blaming the outburst on IED. A federal court rejected the appeal, ruling that the disorder did not qualify as an insanity defense under Oregon law.

Elsewhere, patients have used the diagnosis to claim disability income from the Social Security Administration. And insurance companies are likely to pay for medications used to treat IED and other disorders listed in the manual.

Critics argue that the professionals who rule on what goes into the manual too often have ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

"The people who make these decision range from those with very good intentions ... to people who care about power, money and territory, and work hand in hand with the drug companies," said Paula J. Caplan, a psychologist and author of a book critical of the DSM.

Dr. William Narrow, the associate director of the American Psychiatric Association's Division of Research, said he was not familiar with how the DSM's 1994 edition was produced, but he noted that in 2001, five lawsuits accusing the APA of conspiring with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. were either dropped or dismissed.

The suits were filed by parents of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. They claimed the disorders were created and put into the DSM to stimulate sales of the Novartis drug Ritalin, a common treatment for both conditions.

Narrow said the APA is taking precautions to prevent therapists with ties to drug companies from providing input on the DSM's next revision. "We want the DSM to be a scientific document that won't be questioned for conflicts of interest," he said. "There has been no overt pressure from the pharmaceutical companies."

Some psychiatrists worry that the credibility of their profession will be undermined if the guidelines are expanded too far or become too specific. In particular, they worry that fracturing well-documented disorders into sub-disorders based on flimsy evidence could prevent patients from getting appropriate treatment.

Those concerns alarmed critics when several controversial disorders were added to the manual's fourth edition, typically referred to as the DSM-IV.

"Many of us thought they went overboard," Torrey said. He joked that the range of disorders in the DSM-IV is so wide "you can fit almost everybody you know into one."

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