Out Soon: First Official Consumer Guide To 'The Bible Of Psychiatry'

The DSM-5, widely known as the "bible of psychiatry," is close to 1,000 pages and not exactly user-friendly. (Wikimedia Commons)
The DSM-5, widely known as the "bible of psychiatry," is close to 1,000 pages and not exactly user-friendly. (Wikimedia Commons)

On average, says Dr. Paul Summergrad, the outgoing president of the American Psychiatric Association, he gets three or four calls a week that go something like this: "Hi, I'd love to chat — we haven't talked in a while — but I'm calling about a personal problem — I'm worried."

Almost always, Summergrad says, "It's about a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a brother, a sister, a child — usually an adolescent or young adult who's at the age of onset of these conditions, and they're trying to figure out what to do."

Summergrad, who's also psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center, doesn't mind a bit. "It's actually the best job that I have, taking those calls," he says. "That's one of the most important things I ever do, because I'm trying to get people to the right sources of help."

Now he has one more source to recommend: On May 1, the American Psychiatric Association is officially releasing its first-ever consumer guide to the DSM-5, the compendium of mental disorders that's referred to in virtually every news story ever written about it — including this one, now -- as "the bible of psychiatry." The new consumer-oriented book is called "Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide To The DSM-5."

The new consumer guide to the DSM-5 (Courtesy APA)
The new consumer guide to the DSM-5 (Courtesy APA)

The DSM-5 — DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — took more than a dozen years to develop and sparked controversies over some psychiatric disorders as it was compiled, drawing criticism both within the field and from without. But it was finally published in 2013, the latest version of the go-to reference on psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.

No one would call it user-friendly, though; it's a thick tome of 991 pages in the paperback edition, and written for clinicians and researchers, not laypeople.

So the new consumer guide, Summergrad says, "is a way of trying to provide some help and guidance and understanding for either the individuals themselves, for their family members, or for other caregivers."

It's also intended for tables in the offices of primary care doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, he says, to explain diagnoses in language for laypeople.

As one of those laypeople myself, I felt a little confused. The consumer guide, like the DSM itself, is organized in categories of diagnoses: psychotic disorders, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and more.

That would mean that in order to use it, I'd need to already have a diagnosis, right? But if I were like one of Dr. Summergrad's callers, worried about a loved one and needing guidance on what could be wrong, could a book that explains diagnoses help me?

"I think we’ll find out exactly how people use it, but it is intended as a supplement to professional care, not a substitute," Summergrad says. Oftentimes, he notes, family members speak first with a primary care doctor or pediatrician — a good place to start — or, in this Internet age, they may find possible diagnoses online that they want to explore.

Dr. Paul Summergrad (Courtesy APA)
Dr. Paul Summergrad (Courtesy APA)

"We'll find out what's useful and not useful," he says, "and get important feedback from patients and families and others.

The guide's publication reflects the broader trend of growing public discussion about issues of mental health, Summergrad says, and greater recognition of psychiatric challenges — from speeches at this year's Academy Awards to President Obama's remarks honoring a veteran who committed suicide at a White House ceremony at which he signed a bill aimed at preventing such suicides.

Among the book's goals, Summergrad says, is to demystify psychiatry.

Sigmund Freud said the goal of psychiatry was "to turn hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness," he says. "You know, there's enough ordinary unhappiness and suffering in life; not everything that's suffering is a mental disorder. But there are things that are. So the goal here is not to medicalize everyday life. The goal is to help people get guidance about something they're worried about."

Readers, thoughts? If you get a copy, please share your reactions.

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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