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Moving beyond the DSM paradigm of mental health care

Posted by Claudia M Gold  October 15, 2013 12:00 PM

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A paradigm is a way of thinking about things. For the past 60 or so years, our thinking about mental health and illness has been dominated by what can be referred to as the "DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) paradigm." What this looks like in everyday practice is that when a child is referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for say, anxiety, the questions that parents, referring doctors, and teachers ask is, "Does he have anxiety disorder?" followed by  "How to we manage his behavior?" and "Does he need medication?"

The DSM paradigm has been useful as a way of organizing our thinking. But it is important to recognize that these "disorders" of anxiety, depression, ADHD etc, are simply lists of symptoms that tend to go together. They do not correspond to any known biological processes in the way that, for example, diabetes is a result of lack of insulin.

When the DSM system was first created, we did not have the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical industries that we have today. Because of the existence of these entities, we are currently in a position of being forced in to a very narrow view of mental health and illness.

The DSM system is a black and white paradigm with only the possibility of "normal" or "disordered."
According to the DSM paradigm, if the answer to the first question about my anxious patient is no, and there is no diagnosis, there is no insurance coverage, and so no help. But clearly such a family is struggling.

 We need a paradigm shift, defined as a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions. A new paradigm is needed that gives room for the complexity that we have learned from the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics.

The child above may have a strong family history of anxiety traits. He may have a strong genetic vulnerability for anxiety. However, if a parent who shares these traits was slapped across the face for her "difficult behavior" when she was a child, she may become so overwhelmed with stress in the face of her child's challenges that she is unable to help him to manage his anxiety. Marital conflict, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of a child who is struggling, can further add to the complexity. The environment in which this child grows and develops will determine the way in which his genetic vulnerability is expressed.

As I described in a previous post, the field of infant mental health offers such a paradigm. It is relational, developmental and founded in the basic principle that behavior has meaning. It gives us a way to organize our thinking about the problems of the family I describe above.  It offers a path to treatment, namely to support the efforts of the child's parents to recognize the complex meaning of his behavior. Once parents feel heard and understood, and have the opportunity to make sense of their child's behavior, they will be better able to help him manage his anxiety. They might involve him in physical activities or creative activities that help him to feel calm in his body. They might get help for their own relationship. They might work together with the child's teachers to strategize about how to support him in the school setting.

Thanks to my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I had the honor of being invited to give the Paul A. Dewald lecture this week in St Louis.  My book is about the idea that rather than jump  "what to do" about a child's behavior, it is important to simply "be" with that child,  to think about that child. As I prepared the talk I came to recognize that the same holds true for our whole system of mental health care.  Before we can plan "what to do" to apply the wealth of research I refer to above, we must first recognize that we need to "think" differently. We need move beyond the DSM paradigm and embrace a new paradigm; to facilitate a paradigm shift. An important first step is to name it as such.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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