Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Tool of Oppression": The DSM and the Pathologizing of Personality Types

Ahh the DSM. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with psychology is aware of its existence. To mental health professionals all over North America, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the defacto bible by which they shape their careers. Within it is listed every condition discovered by psychological professions up to this point. To society, it is the gold standard by which all mental health conditions are categorized and understood. It is the lens by which most of us view the workings of our own minds, whether we realize it or not.

But is it the best way?

I've been thinking a lot about the DSM lately for many reasons (my book-in-progress and my self-discovery of also having ADHD-Inattentive, to name a few), and its led me to one inescapable conclusion; in some ways, the DSM is the worst enemy of anyone who challenges what I like to call the 'pathology paradigm' present in psychology. Simply put, the DSM is the tool by which, whether knowingly or not, mental health professionals perpetuate our culture of stigma and oppression towards those who are differently wired. The problem isn't even really with the DSM; as a field guide to the various ways in which human minds can be constructed, its very valuable as it has been thoroughly researched and can effectively give guidance on what kinds of problems someone with any of the conditions listed within may possibly face. The issues arise, however, when we start to treat the DSM as the unflinching word of the gods.

I read an interesting article recently on the topic of neurodiversity which argued that in order for any real change to happen in this area, those of us who are neurodivergent would have to stop using the “tools of our oppressors,” (disability first language, words like pathology and disorder, etc.). While I'm not strictly anti-psychiatry per se, the author had a valid point and it is encapsulated in the tendency of the DSM, and psychology in general, to pathologize the human mind and its various personality types. By its very nature, psychology seeks to categorize and classify the various states of the brain and identify 'disorders,' but who exactly decides what is a disorder and what is simply a divergent state of normal human wiring? Such classifications are all-too-often culturally biased and based almost entirely on what is deemed acceptable by the standards of the society in which they have been created. By accepting such a practice without even considering the socially constructed element of disability, are we not effectively filtering otherwise normal human personality types through an arbitrarily designed acceptability filter?

Don't get me wrong; I understand full well that there are certain conditions listed in the DSM which genuinely are concerning both for the safety of society and the individual themselves. In our search for more and more of those however, we must be careful to avoid pathologizing personality types. After all, if we as a species are naturally diverse physically, culturally and even spiritually, why not mentally? There is no one-size-fits-all human body, so why must the brain conform to such rigid standards of normalcy? We need to move away from the traditional medically-based understanding of psychology and towards one which blends what we have learned with an understanding of the wonderful diversity of human nature. One which respects the identity and agency of each and every human being and which doesn't simply reduce them to a diagnostic label on a testing document.

After all, I may be an Aspie, and I may have ADHD, but I am Adam first and foremost. These have shaped me and are a part of me, but at the end of the day I deserve far more than to be reduced to a simple pathology.

The same is true of every human on this planet, no matter the challenges we face.

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Oh, by the way, here's the link to the article I mentioned in this post. Definitely worth a read!:

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