A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

A man and woman sit on a bench in front of 'Untitled' by Jean-Michel Basquiat, illustrating an article on psychiatric diagnosis.
Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Sotheby's
When I was training as a clinical psychologist, I had a rotation in a low-cost psychotherapy clinic.

Among the first people I met was a young man who believed that he might be responsible for harm coming to his family if he didn't engage in time-consuming rituals, including arranging his shoes very particularly for up to half an hour. The logic motivating this man's behaviour was notably rather magical and unrealistic, appealing to notions of spirit possession and evil, which were culturally alien to his family. My supervisor, a sensitive and empathic clinician, who believed that most issues could be addressed by attentive listening and interpretation, tended to have a single diagnostic concern. The central question for him was whether the person was experiencing anxiety or manifesting the early symptoms of a psychosis. The latter ought to receive a more thorough assessment and more support than our clinic could offer.

Because of the magical quality to this person's reasoning, my supervisor decided that this might be an early sign of psychosis. He instructed me to refer the man to a new research clinic near my training site, which specialised in treating and researching the 'at risk' state for psychosis.

Of course, sensible and cautious though this seemed to me, it entailed telling this young man that he could not be seen by us for talking therapy. Instead, he should go to a clinic that specialised in something serious and frightening-sounding. When I broke the news, he was devastated. He left our clinic, and I later learned that he never followed up with the referral.

What I failed to appreciate at the time – and what some remedial reading later painfully revealed to me – was that, rather than being an early manifestation of psychosis, this man's presentation was more likely a case of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a common condition in which people develop obsessive thoughts and feel compelled to engage in actions to prevent feared harms. If I'd had the diagnostic knowledge and confidence to assert this to my supervisor during the initial consultation, the man I met would likely have received help, rather than being referred to an inappropriate clinic that led to him falling through the cracks.

Yet, a popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields, and should be left to psychiatrists, if at all. This is not a fringe view, it has been perennially present in clinical psychology since at least the 1960s, when the iconoclastic psychiatrists Thomas Szasz and R D Laing presented a dual challenge to their profession.

Szasz, a Hungarian émigré to the United States, argued that mental illness is a 'myth', rooted in a misuse of language. Neurological diseases are real, Szasz suggested, because they can be confirmed by a postmortem examination of the brain. In contrast, he argued that psychiatric 'illness' has no such neurological basis, and is just a medicalised way of talking about problems in life that could be solved by taking responsibility for yourself and your actions.

Meanwhile, Laing, a Scot who trained at the Tavistock Institute in London, argued in The Divided Self (1960) that psychosis is a psychic response to an increasingly alienated 'false self' obscuring the true emotional core of an individual. He held that so-called 'symptoms' (hearing voices, believing unusual things) were actually attempts at recovery in the face of this alienation.

These ideas resonated and had significant influence over psychiatric thinking throughout the 1960s. They contributed to diagnostic approaches to mental health – the idea that there are illnesses called schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression – becoming decidedly unfashionable. Indeed Szasz's and Laing's critiques became so popular that already by the early 1970s, the influential US clinical psychologist Paul Meehl grumbled in his 1973 paper 'Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences' about an 'antinosological' (ie, antidiagnostic) bias taking hold in his profession.

Recently, the animus against psychiatric diagnosis has become more formal and scientifically argued. The British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) – one of the official bodies representing the profession – published two documents in 2013 and 2015 articulating the difficulties with diagnosis, and promoting instead the value of individualised 'formulations'. While it is clear that the DCP's position on diagnosis is not universally held by practitioners in the UK, British psychologists are around half as likely to report regular use of a diagnostic classificatory system as their colleagues in some other countries (for example, fewer than 35 per cent of psychologists in the UK say that they use diagnosis regularly, compared with more than 70 per cent of psychologists in the US, Germany and South Africa). This likely reflects a UK professional culture steeped in suspicion of diagnostic thinking.

The suspicion is not unwarranted. One of the most interesting recent critiques of diagnosis has come from the Belgian psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Stijn Vanheule. He invoked the philosophy of language to argue that diagnosis necessarily draws our attention to the shared meanings conjured by diagnostic language, rather than to the individual meanings inherent to people's experiences. Thus, for example, when I say 'schizophrenia', I focus attention on a generalised, clinical definition that exists in a book, rather than on the individual, personal significance of hearing voices or believing unusual things. For psychotherapists, Vanheule argued, the former is irrelevant, the latter vital.

These arguments are valuable, and they are correct in important ways. Their conclusions are a significant part of what inspired me to get into clinical psychology in the first place. Reading Laing as a teenager, I thrilled to the challenge he presented: to understand people as they endure the most extreme and bewildering psychic states; to try to find coherence even where it seems to be absent. This impulse is essential. Patience and careful listening can reveal that people are capable of engaging in communication more often than we tend to give them credit for. But my clinical training has shown me that, despite the importance of understanding people in an individualised way, having a knowledge of diagnostic categories is also essential.

To return to the example above, my supervisor and I were ignorant of valuable diagnostic information; we were ignorant of the ways that clinicians can distinguish magical obsessions from the early hints of delusion. We were ignorant of the fact that even quite magical ideas are well within the range of the former without shading into the latter. We were ignorant of how easy it would have been to provide effective help without raising the prospect of a terrifying psychosis down the pipeline. Our ignorance cost someone dearly.

Diagnosis is often vital for ensuring good care. Apart from the importance of ruling out organic causes for apparently straightforward instances of depression and anxiety (which can be symptomatic of a surprising range of endocrine, infectious and neurological diseases), linking psychological distress into a broader framework also helps clinicians make sense of the people they are trying to help. Certain forms of substance misuse could represent attempts at self-medication for highly treatable disorders of mood or attention, for instance. Correct identification of trauma symptoms can avert diagnosis of a psychotic illness. Proper diagnosis of depression in later life can frequently account for changes in memory and attention that might otherwise be mistaken for dementia, as unfortunately often happens. Diagnosis of bipolar mood disorder can prevent people being inappropriately treated for personality disorders.

Psychology's antinosological tendency encourages a belief that diagnostic thinking is somehow inherently unkind; that in thinking about categories you are always only 'labelling' people, and that this is an inhumane thing to do.

Conversely, it also encourages a belief that all you really need in mental healthcare is sympathy, rapport and interpretative heroics. This appeals to some of the questionable impulses of professionals: to our desire to see ourselves as people uniquely able to understand others, and to our ordinary human laziness. Who would want to engage in learning about taxonomy if to do so is both unkind and unnecessary?

Understanding people is a multifaceted enterprise. We all manifest a splendid idiosyncrasy, living out lives that could never be copied or repeated, so it makes sense to consider one another in the light of this uniqueness. But we also bear resemblances to one another. Important though it is to be seen in all your individuality, it is also helpful to know when your problems have precedent.

Psychiatric diagnoses are imperfect, sketchy theories about how people's minds can give them trouble. We know that they are largely less precise and valid than is popularly understood, but this does not render them totally uninformative. We have learned snippets of useful information by considering psychological problems in terms of categories: the effectiveness, or not, of treatments for particular groups of people; the elevated risk of suicide among others. Many symptoms can seem to 'make sense' in the context of a person's life, but we know that humans are sense-making machines, so we need to be vigilant against 'making sense' where it is only illusory. The great intellectual challenge of clinical psychology is to integrate knowledge about reasons and people with knowledge about causes and mechanisms. We should avoid relying solely on diagnostic information, but we shouldn't discard it altogether.Aeon counter – do not remove

Huw Green

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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Half of evangelicals believe Trump is anointed by God

A recent survey also found that political messaging from the pulpit increased the likelihood of believing presidents to be ordained by God.

President Trump and faith leaders say a prayer during a signing of a national day of prayer for people affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Culture & Religion
  • Evangelical support of President Trump has baffled many who find his conduct at odds with core Christian values.
  • A recent survey found that 49 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe Trump was chosen by God.
  • Additional data found evangelicals are mixed on his moral character but view him as critical to political victories.

For non-Trumpists, one of the most baffling qualities of his presidency is the overwhelming support received from evangelical Christians. A record 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than George W. Bush, and that support has grown into a fervor over the years.

As Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," told Big Think in an interview: "This makes no sense to people, especially when you consider that Trump is not just the most irreligious president in modern history. His entire worldview makes a mockery of core Christian values like humility and empathy and care for the poor."

While Jesus taught humility (Philippians 2:7), Trump is braggadocios. While Jesus taught us not to covet earthly possessions (Matthew 6:19), Trump built his reputation on worldly riches. While Jesus taught his followers to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), Trump tweets vitriol at his opposition.

So how can so many Christians support two men with diametrically opposed worldviews? The answer is multifaceted, but a recent survey may have found a crucial element in understanding this ostensible discrepancy. According to the results, a healthy number of evangelicals believe Trump to be anointed by God.

A divine mandate

Two graphs showing how church attendance increases the likelihood that someone will believe all presidents (blue) or Trump (orange) were anointed by God. The graph on the left shows the survey's 2019 results, the right its 2020 results.

(Photo: Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge)

Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge, associate professors of political science at Denison University and Eastern Illinois University, respectively, noticed a spate of pastors, pundits, and politicians exclaiming Trump to be God's chosen one. To pick one example, televangelist Pat Robertson has claimed that Trump received a mandate from God.

"I think, somehow, the Lord's plan is being put in place for America and these people are not only revolting against Trump, they're revolting against what God's plan is for America," Robertson said during a February 2017 broadcast of "The 700 Club."

The two sociologists wanted to see if such beliefs were widespread among America's Christians or just the hyperbolic musings of ratings-hungry talking heads. In May 2019, they surveyed just over 1,000 church-attending Protestants and asked them two questions: First, did they believe all presidents were anointed by God; Second, did they believe President Donald Trump was specifically anointed by God?

In their sample, about a third of white evangelicals agreed that Trump was ordained by God to win the 2016 election. Djupe and Burge also found that as church attendance increased, so did the percentage of those who agreed with both questions.

For example, among white Protestants who attended church less than once a month, only 9.4 percent agreed that Trump was anointed by God. But among white Protestants who attended church more than once a week, that number leaped to 29.6 percent. When Djupe and Burge looked specifically at Pentecostals, they found 53 percent connected Trump's presidency with divine design.

Djupe and Burge ran their survey again in March 2020, asking the same questions to a quota-sampled cohort that matched the previous study in gender, region, and age. As with the previous study, they released their research as a teaching resource on their blog, Religion in Public.

They found belief in Trump's anointment had risen across their sample, again increasing in proportion with church attendance. Among white Protestants who attend church once or more a week, belief in Trump's anointment rose to 49.5 percent. Their sample also showed a rising belief that all presidents were anointed.

Other surveys have shown similar results. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans, not just church-attenders, about God's role in recent presidential elections. They found that 32 percent of the more than 6,000 respondents, a sizable minority, believed Trump's election must be part of God's overall plan—though only 5 percent of those respondents believed God chose Trump because of his policies.

The survey found similar opinions regarding Obama's election, suggesting a not insubstantial belief that God involves himself with American elections but remains fiercely nonpartisan.

The political pulpit

A graph showing how political speech from clergy correlates with increased belief that Trump was anointed by God. The correlation proved strongest among Republicans.

(Photo: Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge)

Evangelicals believing God chose Trump may go some way in explaining their support of him, but it doesn't relieve the perceived cognitive dissonance between Trump's values and those of core Christianity.

In his interview, Reza Aslan argued Trumpism had become a cult for fundamentalists. For these fundamentalists, Trump became a warrior under the auspice of God to fight on behalf of evangelical beliefs. A "salvific character" to worship, as Aslan put it.

Bruge and Djupe don't go so far as to call Trumpism a cult; However, their data back the idea that Trump's rise can be linked to defensive circling against perceived threats and repeated messaging.

"We were quite surprised by the result that 49 percent of those frequently attending worship services believed that Trump was anointed by God to be president," Bruge and Djupe told Fox News in an interview. "At least until we examined the evidence that suggested religious and secular elites continue to claim that Trump has a religiously significant role to play."

The sociologists also asked their 2020 respondents whether they heard clergy mention political topics at the pulpit. They found a strong correlation between church attendance with political messaging and a belief in Trump's anointment among Republicans (see the above graph). That correlation was not as strong among Democrats or Independents.

Belief in Trump's anointment similarly climbed if respondents heard messaging that Democrats threatened rights and liberties. When hearing such arguments, even Democrat Christians were more likely to agree in Trump's anointment.

"We are not the first to note that right-wing media are having a profound effect on public opinion, serving to insulate Trump supporters," Burge and Djupe write. "We are some of the first to document how this is built and sustained from the bottom up. That is, political churches, among Republicans especially, reinforce the argumentation that is also coming from above."

They conclude, "But it is important to see that this is not just an evangelical Republican problem. The religious significance of the presidency is swelling across the board for the religious, indicating further polarization along religious and partisan lines is continuing."

The King David defense

As for Trump's moral conduct, evangelicals don't maintain the cognitive dissonance that Reza Aslan and other non-Trumpists perceive would be necessary. The same 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that white evangelicals were mixed on Trump's personal conduct and moral qualities—with only 15 percent agreeing that the phrase "morally upstanding" described Trump well.

Where there is more agreement, however, is the belief that Trump's administration is on the evangelical side of the culture war. Fifty-nine percent of white evangelical Christians believe that the Trump administration has helped their interests, and 63 percent say their side has been winning politically, which according to Pew is "triple the share who said this in May 2016, six months before Trump's election."

Rick Perry summed up this worldview last year when he told Fox News: "Barack Obama didn't get to be the president of the United States without being ordained by God. Neither did Donald Trump." He added that God has used "individuals who aren't perfect all through history" such as King David and King Solomon.

In the evangelical mindset, support for Trump isn't a moral inconsistency. They perceive the President's moral character to be lacking in fiber, but still believe he was chosen to fight the good fight with the blessing of God's will.

Whether that fight matches the will of the people, we'll have to wait until November to find out.

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