DSM-5 Update: What's New?

Alicia Ault

March 04, 2022

Ahead of its official release on March 18, the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is in the form of a textbook, is already drawing some criticism.

The American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR), which is not a full revision, only includes one new condition, Prolonged Grief Disorder.

It also includes symptom codes for suicidal behavior and nonsuicidal self-injury, clarifying modifications to criteria sets for more than 70 disorders, including autism spectrum disorder; changes in terminology for gender dysphoria; and a comprehensive review of the impact of racism and discrimination on the diagnosis and manifestations of mental disorders.

The Text Revision is a compilation of iterative changes that have been made online on a rolling basis since the DSM-5 was first published in 2013.

"The goal of the Text Revision was to allow a thorough revision of the text, not the criteria," Paul Appelbaum, MD, chair of the APA's DSM Steering Committee, told Medscape Medical News.

For the Text Revision, some 200 experts across a variety of APA working groups recommended changes to the text based on a comprehensive literature review, said Appelbaum, who is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law, and director of the Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

However, there's not a lot that's new, in part, because there have been few therapeutic advances.

Money Maker?

Allen Frances, MD, chair of the DSM-4 task force and professor and chair emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, said the APA is publishing the Text Revision "just to make money. They're very anxious to do anything that will increase sales and having a revision forces some people, especially in institutions, to buy the book, even though it may not have anything substantive to add to the original."

Frances told Medscape Medical News that when the APA published the first DSM in the late 1970s, "it became an instantaneous best-seller, to everyone's surprise."    

The APA would not comment on how many of the $170 (list price) volumes it sells or how much those sales contribute to its budget.

Appelbaum acknowledged, "at any point in time, the canonical version is the online version." However, he added, it's clear from DSM-5 sales "that many people still value having a hard copy of the DSM available to them."  

Prolonged Grief: Timely or Overkill?

Persistent complex bereavement disorder (PCBD) was listed as a "condition for further study" in DSM-5. After a 2019 workshop aimed at getting consensus for diagnosis criteria, the APA board approved the new Prolonged Grief Disorder in October 2020, and the APA assembly approved the new disorder in November 2020. 

Given the 950,000 deaths from COVID-19 over the past 2 years, inclusion of Prolonged Grief Disorder in the DSM-5 may arrive at just the right time.

The diagnostic criteria for PCBD include:

  • The development of a persistent grief response (longer than a year for adults and 6 months for children and adolescents) characterized by one or both of the following symptoms, which have been present most days to a clinically significant degree, and have occurred nearly every day for at least the last month: intense yearning/longing for the deceased person; preoccupation with thoughts or memories of the deceased person.

  • Since the death, at least three symptoms present most days to a clinically significant degree, and occurring nearly every day for at least the last month, including identity disruption; marked sense of disbelief about the death; avoidance of reminders that the person is dead; intense emotional pain related to the death; difficulty reintegrating into one's relationships and activities after the death; emotional numbness; feeling that life is meaningless as a result of the death; and intense loneliness as a result of the death.

  • The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

  • The duration and severity of the bereavement reaction clearly exceed expected social, cultural, or religious norms for the individual's culture and context.

  • The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder, such as major depressive disorder (MDD) or posttraumatic stress disorder, and are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition.

Frances said he believes creating a new diagnosis pathologizes grief. In DSM-3 and DSM-4, an exception was made under the diagnosis of MDD for individuals who had recently lost a loved one, said Frances. "We wanted to have at least an opportunity for people to grieve without being stigmatized, mislabeled, and overtreated with medication," he said.

DSM-5 removed the bereavement exclusion. After 2 weeks, people who are grieving and have particular symptoms could receive a diagnosis of MDD, said Frances. He believes the exclusion should have been broadened to cover anyone experiencing a major loss — such as a job loss or divorce. If someone is having prolonged symptoms that interfere with functioning, they should get an MDD diagnosis, he said.

The new disorder "doesn't solve anything, it just adds to the confusion and stigmatization, and it's part of a kind of creeping medical imperialization of everyday life, where everything has to have a mental disorder label," Frances said.

However, Appelbaum countered that "the criteria for Prolonged Grief Disorder are constructed in such a way as to make every effort to exclude people who are going through a normal grieving process."

"Part of the purpose of the data analyses was to ensure the criteria that were adopted would, in fact, effectively distinguish between what anybody goes through, say when someone close to you dies, and this unusual prolonged grieving process without end that affects a much smaller number of people but which really can be crippling for them," he added.

The Text Revision adds new symptom codes for suicidal behavior and nonsuicidal self-injury, which appear in the chapter, "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention," said Appelbaum.

"Both suicidal behavior and nonsuicidal self-injury seem pretty persuasively to fall into that category — something a clinician would want to know about, pay attention to, and factor into treatment planning, although they are behaviors that cross many diagnostic categories," he added.

Codes also provide a systematic way of ascertaining the incidence and prevalence of such behaviors, said Appelbaum.

Changes to Gender Terminology

The Text Revision also tweaks some terminology with respect to transgender individuals. The term "desired gender" is now "experienced gender", the term "cross-sex medical procedure" is now "gender-affirming medical procedure", and the terms "natal male/natal female" are now "individual assigned male/female at birth".

Frances said that the existence of gender dysphoria as a diagnosis has been a matter of controversy ever since it was first included.

"The transgender community has had mixed feelings on whether there should be anything at all in the manual," he said. On one hand is the argument that gender dysphoria should be removed because it's not really a psychiatric issue.

"We seriously considered eliminating it altogether in DSM-4," said Frances.

However, an argument in favor of keeping it was that if the diagnosis was removed, it would mean that people could not receive treatment, said Frances. "There's no right argument for this dilemma," he said.

Frances, who has been a frequent critic of DSM-5, said he believes the manual continues to miss opportunities to tighten criteria for many diagnoses, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

"There's a consistent pattern of taking behaviors and symptoms of behaviors that are on the border with normality and expanding the definition of mental disorder and reducing the realm of normality," he said.

That has consequences, Frances added. "When someone gets a diagnosis that they need to get, it's the beginning of a much better future," said Frances. "When someone gets a diagnosis that's a mislabel that they don't need, it has all harms and no benefits. It's stigmatizing, leads to too much treatment, the wrong treatment, and it's much more harmful than helpful," he said.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA, Smithsonian.com, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter: @aliciaault.

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