Opinion: New Diagnosis Risks 'It's All In Your Head' Response To Illness

Author Laurie Edwards (courtesy)

Author Laurie Edwards (courtesy)

By Laurie Edwards
Guest contributor

As a young woman, I was told more than once that my severe respiratory symptoms were perhaps “psychosomatic,” caused by stress or anxiety. Being sick enough to be in the intensive care unit was challenging enough; having my credibility called into question while I was struggling simply to breathe made the situation that much harder.

When biopsies confirmed that I had a rare genetic lung disease called primary ciliary dyskinesia, I had “proof” that my physical problems were just that—physical.

Unfortunately, not every condition lends itself to biopsies and concrete diagnostic tests, and that ambiguity leaves a hazardous gap that could soon be widened by a new psychiatric diagnosis.

Next month, the American Psychiatric Association will release the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. Critics have found plenty to complain about in this new edition of what’s considered the mental health diagnostic bible, including its redefinition of depression, but one of the most contentious changes is the inclusion of Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD).

In short, the SSD diagnosis makes it much easier to diagnose physical symptoms as mental illness, and diminishes patients’ ability to report normal emotional responses to the upheaval that physical illness can cause.

To get a sense of why Somatic Symptom Disorder is a flawed diagnosis, consider this: Patients meet its criteria if they have at least one symptom disruptive to daily life for at least six months and at least one of the following:

• Disproportionate thoughts about the severity of their symptoms
• Heightened anxiety over their symptoms
• Spending too much time and energy on their health concerns

Does this sound like mental illness? Perhaps, depending on who is doing the listening and categorizing. But it also sounds a lot like the trajectory of many chronic illnesses, and that’s the problem.

The diagnosis ‘increases the chance they will be cast aside as histrionic’

No group has more to lose with the introduction of Somatic Symptom Disorder than patients who live with chronic pain conditions, a disproportionate number of whom are women.

Women are three times more likely to manifest autoimmune disorders than men, for example; they’re four times more likely to be diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and nine times more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Continue reading