The National Institute of Mental Health will reportedly discourage the use of DSM categories for its future research projects. NIMH Director Thomas Insel is promoting a new approach, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), which is based on three guiding principles: 1) Pathology is conceived in terms of dimensions ranging from normal to abnormal; 2) Classification of disorders will be generated from basic behavioral neuroscience, not current DSM categories; 3) Multiple units of analysis (i.e. physiological activity, behavior, self-reports of symptoms) will be used in defining constructs for study. In a recent article by Maia Szalavitz, Insel is quoted as saying:
I look at the data and I’m concerned. I don’t see a reduction in the rate of suicide or prevalence or mental illness or any measure of morbidity. I see it in other areas of medicine and I don’t see it for mental illness.
As I understand it, the basic idea behind RDoC is that researchers will likely be more successful in understanding the neurological and genetic underpinnings of psychiatric disorders if they focus on specific symptoms, which may occur across multiple disorders, rather than continue to focus on disease categories based on complex groupings of various symptoms. This makes sense to me as a better way to approach the biological dimensions of mental health, but it also implies that the NIMH, like the American Psychiatric Association, is content to downplay the subjective, interpersonal, and sociocultural dimensions of mental health and distress, at least when it comes to research funding. As Benjamin Wachs puts it:
The NIMH isn’t offering a real alternative to the DSM: rather, they’re doubling down on the fallacy that the DSM was pursuing in the first place. That the mind is best understood as a computer, and when your computer breaks you don’t talk to it or ask it how it feels. In fact, you don’t even let the computer decide whether it’s broken or not. If it’s not behaving according to spec, you get it fixed.
DSM-IV Chair Allen Frances said the following his recent analysis of the topic:
APA and NIMH are both on the sidelines, doing nothing to help restore humane and effective care for those who most need it. DSM-5 introduces frivolous new diagnosis that will distract attention and resources from the real psychiatric problems currently being neglected. NIMH has turned itself almost exclusively into a high power brain research institute that feels almost no responsibility for how patients are treated or mistreated in the here and now.
There seems to be two major viewpoints in the mental health field these days. The first, typified by highly influential organizations like the APA and NIMH, sees mental health as primarily a matter of brain functioning. Lip service is often paid to “cultural factors,” but the subjective, intersubjective, and sociocultural dimensions of humanity are given short shrift in terms of emphasis and resource allocation. The second major trend in mental health is the integrative or integral view, which insists that every dimension of humanity must be fully taken into account in all mental health theory, research and practice. The NIMH’s new research direction will hopefully bear fruit, but it will miss the big picture if the narrow focus on neuroscience is not placed within a broader biopsychosocial context.