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In the age of DSM 5, what is normal?

Posted by Claudia M Gold  September 23, 2013 12:40 PM

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In an interesting coincidence, a couple of weeks ago I received two emails on the same day asking me to write about books that are about the same subject. One is  Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness,  the second Back To Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The first was written by David Rettew, MD a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, where at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families ( VCCYF) they have an innovative family centered, strength-based approach to children's emotional and behavioral problems.

In a language that is based in science and research,  Rettew explores the overlap and interplay between the concepts of "temperament" and "psychopathology. He tackles the complex science of behavioral epigenetics- the impact of life experience on gene expression and subsequent behavior and development. He then describes how he integrates these ideas in to his care of children and families. For example, he describes how he might speak to a child patient:

I've heard a lot about you today and one of the things that I hear from you and your parents is that you are a very kind person who can really tune in to other people.  That is a wonderful quality that will serve you well in the future. At the same time, I also hear that you can get so concerned about what others think about you that you avoid things you like doing just so there is no chance you will feel embarrassed. Doctors sometimes use the term  social anxiety disorder to describe this situation, and if you are willing there are things we can do to help you feel more at ease in social situations.
He masterfully takes on very complex issues, including the way a child's behavior may provoke a parent's negative response.
A father of a temperamentally irritable boy who is prone to shout at the boy for  relatively minor infractions is certainly not relieved of responsibility for his behavior, but can be understood from a prespective that some of his suboptimal responses are evoked by the child's behavior, partially influenced by shared genes that cause both of them to escalate in negative ways.
The second book is organized around examples from the practice of the author Enrico Gnaulati, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in child and adolescent therapy. He examines our cultures rush to diagnose and medicate, and what he terms the "casualties of casual diagnosis." He writes:
In the past four decades we have gone from blaming parents for kids' problem behavior to blaming kids' brains....yet rarely can a child's behavior be explained exclusively in terms of child rearing or brain chemistry. In most cases, it is causes- plural, not singular- that explain why a child behaves the way he or she does. 
The underlying problem both authors address is embedded in the paradigm of mental health in which they practice.  Rettew seems to be trying to wrestle out of the paradigm in the last section where he describes an evaluation process that makes use of other tools besides DSM. However, the above example shows how the language of DSM permeates care, when albeit reluctantly, he uses the term "social anxiety disorder." This "disorder" may be in the DSM, but it is not a "real" disorder in the way, for example, diabetes is.

Earlier this year, the head of the National Institute for Mental Health tried to discredit DSM 5 by saying that they would not fund research based on the DSM system but rather aim to find the underlying "cause" in the realm of neuroscience and genetics. But as Gnaulati points out, we will never find the cause by just looking at the brain.

Gnaulati is similarly trying to find another way to think about this paradigm that offers oversimplified labels. But I am concerned that framing the issue as "normal" vs "disordered" is  misguided, and a result of the author being unable to see his way out of the DSM paradigm.

If a child and family are seeking help, then by definition the behavior is not "normal." Given the continued stigma associated with mental health problems, for a family to make the effort to call, make an appointment and actually show up, they are likely to be struggling in a significant way. Thus to call this "normal," even though the intention may be to be reassuring, is actually dismissive of the family's suffering. I wrestle with this dilemma every day in my clinical practice. Parents come to me and ask, "Is my child normal?"

I speak to this issue in a previous post: Answering the question: is something wrong with my child?
I refer to an article by Daphne Merkin on the question of whether depression is inherited:
The concept of "being attuned to your child's nature, especially when it differs from your own,"  is the essence of healthy parenting. She is describing a parent's recognition of what D. W, Winnicott termed the child's "true self." It involves recognizing a child as a person with thoughts and feelings that are his own. It is an excellent goal to work towards, though not always easy.   Issues that get in the way of recognizing the child's true self, including stresses in a parent's life and other relationships, may need to be addressed.
When viewed from this perspective, the question becomes not "is there something wrong with my child?" but rather "Who is this child, and how is he or she both alike and different from me?"
I wonder if Rettew and Gnaulati are so much a part of the prevailing paradigm that they do not recognize that what they are actually doing in their books is questioning the very paradigm in which they practice. If they were to step outside of the paradigm, they might, rather than asking the question "does a child have ADHD?" , asking the more salient question, "Is ADHD ( or autism or bipolar disorder or OCD for that matter) the way we as a culture use the term, a "real" thing, or is it an artificial construct defined by the DSM system and perpetuated by the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries?"

I believe that what both of these authors are actually doing is describing a new paradigm of mental health care that recognizes the relational nature of human development and offers opportunity for curiosity about the complex meaning of behavior. I'm calling them on it.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com 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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