Boycott DSM5? Why Not?


Captain Boycott was the British land agent for Lord Erne of County Mayo who, in 1880, was ostracized from the local community as part of the Irish Land League’s campaign for agrarian tenants’ rights. Rather than harvest Lord Erne’s crops, his tenants let them rot in the fields, obliging the good captain to leave Ireland. Wittingly or not, he left behind his name, which was promptly applied to a protest tactic that has proved effective over the years.

I still don’t eat Iceberg lettuce or Thompson seedless grapes. And if grapes, why not the DSM?

The DSM5 proved to be the center of conversation and contention at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual convention conducted in Philadelphia May 5 to 9. Even as the convention was concluding, a host of articles were published in the print and on-line press trumpeting the news that the DSM5 Task Force had backed off including several proposed and controversial additions to the new DSM. Time magazine and Benedict Carey of The New York Times reported that two of the more controversial diagnoses, Attenuated Psychosis Syndrome and Mixed Anxiety Depressive Disorder, have been dropped because the field testing research undertaken by the Task Force did not provide sufficient supporting data. The “bereavement exception” to the diagnosis of Major Depression has also been re-inserted, if only as an explanatory footnote; and public commentary has been re-opened on the DSM5 website until June 15 although the projected publication date of May, 2013, remains unchanged.

Medpage Today printed a comprehensive summary of all the changes in the draft DSM5 to date, “DSM5: What’s In, What’s Out,” by John Gever; and Allen Frances, the editor of DSM IV and foremost critic of the new DSM, breathed a “Sigh of relief…” in his blog on Psychology Today. “… For the first time in its history, DSM5 has shown some … capacity to correct itself … the first step in a systematic program of reform … before DSM5 can become a safe and scientifically sound document.” He topped off his comments in an op-ed published in The Times May 11: “… Psychiatric diagnosis is simply too important to be left exclusively in the hands of psychiatrists. They will also be an essential part of the mix but should no longer be permitted to call all the shots.”

While I’m a great admirer of Dr. Frances, I don’t share his optimism regarding psychiatry’s ability to reform itself or the DSM5 or psychiatrists’ willingness to share clinical decision-making or continued development of the DSM with other professional stakeholders. Those who have power don’t surrender it so quickly, unless under considerable duress. And I don’t believe the “public outrage” and the “uniformly negative press coverage” which Dr. Allen cites as instrumental in the APA Task Force’s modest turnaround, even if augmented, will prove sufficiently persuasive. Hence my idea for a boycott.

An article published in The New England Journal of Medicine on May 17, “Mental Illness – Comprehensive Evaluation or Checklist?”, which expresses a point of view sharply if politely critical of the DSM5, persuaded me that a boycott might not seem so far-fetched. The authors make three fundamental observations: first, the DSM task force has failed to answer the key question about the disorders that it presumes to categorize: “What are they?” In fact, the authors contend that the APA and its DSM task forces, dating from the DSM III, have failed to answer that question. Which is a polite way of re-stating Kirk and Kutchins’s and Bentall’s contentions that the DSM’s presumed disease entities, i.e., the mental illnesses it categorizes, have no construct validity, no data to support their existence. Accordingly, the DSM and its last four editions, III through IV TR, ignore the issue of causality – what’s behind these illnesses – and have substituted symptoms and their categorization in its stead. These same symptoms, the authors remind us, are common to a multitude of disorders and distinguishing between them as illness-specific is further confounded by continued poor inter-rater reliability. To bypass this problem, the DSMs have reduced presumed illnesses to symptom checklists which are expedient, cost effective and serve more the interests of insurance companies and government monitors than those of clinicians and their patients. In practice, the checklists have replaced what the authors call the “bottom-up method of [assessment and] diagnosis … based on a detailed life history , painstaking examination of mental status and corroboration from third-party informants …”

The authors end with a biting admonition to psychiatrists: “ … [Only when psychiatrists address] psychiatric disorders in the same way that internists address physical disorders, explaining the clinical manifestations … by the causal processes and generative mechanisms known to provoke them … will psychiatry come of age as a medical discipline and a field guide cease to be its master work” (italics mine).

Medical snobbery and one-upmanship aside, that statement tells me that psychiatry and its status within the medical profession hasn’t moved off the dime, that it’s still back where it was pre-DSM III. As per Kirk and Kutchins, one of the key motivating factors for the APA in assembling the DSM III was to demonstrate to psychiatrists’ medical brethren that psychiatry had a solid scientific base and qualified as a medical discipline as valid as any other. The DSM III and its subsequent iterations appeared to have secured professional legitimacy for psychiatry. Now it would seem that the brouhaha stirred by the DSM5 has succeeded in blowing the smoke from the mirror, revealing anew the DSM’s original flaws – lack of construct validity and poor inter-rater reliability. Probably the best reason to not buy, to boycott the new DSM.

And what would be the consequences? For starters, the APA would lose a lot of money. As Allen Frances has pointed out, the DSM, which has sold in the millions over the past thirty years, has been a “cash cow” for the APA. More importantly, the thirty-year long momentum to label more and more individuals as mentally ill and to pathologize their behavior would be checked, even if not stopped entirely. Which would help to undermine the DSM as a tool of social control.

And what would clinicians use in its stead? Well, the DSM IV TR is still in circulation and could be used as a diagnostic checklist, its current principal function. Clinicians could also begin relying solely on the ICD, the International Classification of Diseases manual, which is itself a diagnostic checklist and must be used by providers, in accordance with U.S. law and international treaty, when submitting bills to CMS, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and to insurance companies. Coincidentally, the ICD-9 U.S.CM (clinical modification), which has been in use in this country for the past twenty years, was scheduled to be replaced by the ICD-10 in the Fall of next year. If you didn’t know already, the new ICD will contain 46,000 disease classifications, more than triple ICD-9’s current 14,000. Talk about bureaucracy. I guess the Feds and the insurance companies have been busy parsing every illness known to medical science. In that spirit, the DSM5, now scheduled for release in May of next year, is being designed to contain a DSM → ICD 10 crosswalk as an aid to clinicians.

In any event, Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Federal agency that oversees the use of the ICD, recently announced postponement of the issuance of ICD 10 until 2014. Seems the necessary software programs are still being written. Something to look forward to!

It would be great to boycott use of the ICD as well; which would rattle the cage of the entire public mental health system; which serves to demonstrate how intertwined and intellectually bankrupt and financially fragile the whole mental health system is. A mirror image, so to speak, of our banking and financial systems. No, I would settle for a boycott of the DSM5 to get things rolling. As I said earlier, I have no trust that continued pressure, even the threat of a boycott, would deter the APA from publishing #5.

At this point, the question I’d like answered is whether anyone reading this agrees that the idea of a DSM5 boycott has some merit. Or is it just a crazy idea that would never fly? And if any one or more of you have any ideas about how to test the waters, how to get the word out to see if other folks, particularly the clinicians, who would be most likely to purchase copies, think a boycott could be mobilized.

Let me know what you think. Remember, don’t mourn, organize! Lots of work still to be done!


American Medical Association, “ICD-10 Code Set to Replace ICD-9,”

Bentall, R., Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature, Penguin Books, London, 2004

Carey, Benedict, “Psychiatry Manual Drafters Back Down on Diagnoses,” The New York Times, May 9, 2012,

Frances, Allen, “Diagnosing the D.S.M.,” The New York Times, May 11, 2012,

, “Wonderful News: DSM 5 Finally Begins Its Belated and Necessary Retreat,” May 2, 2012,

, “Is DSM5 a Public Trust or an APA Cash Cow,” January 3, 2012,

Gever, John, “DSM5: What’s In, What’s Out,” May 10, 2012,

Kirk, S.A., Kutchins, H., The Selling of DSM: The Rhetoric of Science in Psychiatry, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1992

McHugh, Paul and Slavney, Philip, “Mental Illness – Comprehensive Evaluation or Checklist,” The New England Journal of Medicine, May 17, 2012,

Phillips, James, “DSM5 In the Homestretch – 1. Integrating the Coding Systems,” March 7, 2012,

Szalavitz, Maia, “DSM5 Debate: Committee Backs Off Some Changes, Re-Opens Comments,” Time Magazine, May 3, 2012,


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. I wish it would fly. I think major problem might be that few clinicians have any training using ICD codes directly, they just know the codes that correspond to DSM diagnoses. It would be great if someone could make primer out of the mental health related ICD codes for nothing else but for helping clinicians choose more appropriate billing codes without the filter of the DSM.

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  2. I believe the boycott has already started. It begins with not buying into the diagnosis. What if I had said to my son’s doctor at the time, “I disagree with the diagnosis, I’m not buying it, so why don’t you come up with something we can both agree on or I’ll find someone else?” I couldn’t have said, that, of course, because I didn’t know any better, but now I do and so do so many other people. Boycotting the DSM means turning down the drugs and the insurance companies, and that’s a tricky one. But, the knowledge is out there to boycott. Unfortunately, it’s helpful alternatives that are not-well organized. That last time my son looked like he was headed for hospitalization, I searched in vain for alternatives. I ended up inventing my own in-home Soteria, and nearly burned myself out in the process. He was hospitalized anyway.

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    • “What if I had said to my son’s doctor at the time, “I disagree with the diagnosis, I’m not buying it, so why don’t you come up with something we can both agree on or I’ll find someone else?”

      He would have taken his complimentary drug company shiny colorful plastic pen with the Seroquel (TM) logo on it, and reached into his draw for the commitment papers, that’s what would have happened.

      There’s no ‘disagreeing’ with a coercive agent of the state.

      To their face, at least.

      I like this article, well researched and good effort. I’ve always been a little perplexed by he figures I see everywhere that say because the APA makes a few tens if millions of dollars out of seeling physical DSM books, that this is somehow some cash cow.

      It’s a drop in the bucket compared to membership fees, and the political power the government has handed psychiatry by its government monopoly on so called ‘mental illness’ in terms of the government giving psychiatry the right to mint as many involuntary ‘patients’ as it sees fit.

      Involuntary ‘patients’ were the foundation upon which psychiatric ideology was built. If it weren’t for psychiatry being able to label and define and own most of the extremely distressed people, it never would have got a foothold in the labeling of minorly distressed people.

      The quackery that is psychiatry, was first granted legitimacy by and put in a position where the public would view it as the ‘go-to’ remedy when the government handed it the role hundreds of years ago of being a place to throw away distressed people ie ‘loony bin’.

      From the human dumpster that was the ‘loony bin’ rose up a situation where this quackery was mainstreamed, and now today the market has expanded where this false solution is now sold for every, any and all unwanted thought, feeling or behavior of the entire human experience.

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  3. It’s always helpful to have facts where facts are available.

    American Psychiatric Association dues range from $205 to $565 per year, with the highest rate paid by doctors with established practices, see

    It claims 36,000 members (–psychiatry ), approximately 90% of the psychiatrists in the U.S.

    At a rough average of $385 per year per member (this is a low estimate), the APA takes in about $13,860,000 annually in dues.

    It also receives about $7 million per year from pharmaceutical companies (2011 annual report–psychiatry/annual-reports ). $3.3M of this is from journal advertising, about $2M from the annual meeting (booth rental, etc.), and $1.7M for “education and research” (I believe these are donations to an APA foundation).

    (There is also an American Psychiatric Association Political Action Committee for government lobbying ( ), total 2009-2010 campaign contributions: $283,500.)

    The list price of the DSM-IV TR was $121.00, APA Member Price $96.80. The APA also sells desk references and guides associated with the DSM ( ).

    It was published in 2000 and as of today, ranks #7 in Amazon book sales in Medicine.

    The DSM is purchased not only by psychiatrists but by other mental health professionals.

    The APA would certainly feel an effective boycott of the DSM-5.

    Perhaps one of the places to start would be lobbying the health insurance companies to accept ICD-9 diagnoses with no reference to the DSM-5. Then psychologists can bypass purchased the new DSM with its new diagnosis scheme.

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    • Thanks for all the data. Always helpful.

      Given Sibellius’s delay in authorizing use of the ICD-10 until 2014, the DSM5 crosswalk won’t be applicable until then. Gives psychologists and other like-minded professionals — which excludes most social workers, or at least their professional organizations — time to do the lobbying you’re suggesting. In the interim, don’t buy the DSM5.
      Best, Jack Carney

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  4. Although the ICD is no better than recent DSMs in my opinion, as one psychiatrist, I think DSM III-upcoming 5 were all premature and unnecessary. I’m not sure what you practically mean by a boycott, but the time is now (before publication) to get something started. The only reason I put up a blog about psychiatrists only using DSM 5 was to take the financial incentive for the American Psychiatric Association out of the equation.

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  5. In a new entry, I use the software/hardware analogy to explain why psychiatry is evil,

    In this analogy, the engineer that fixes hardware problems is the traditional medical doctor. The engineer that fixes software problems is the psychologist, counselor or friend who helps you deal with the tough issues in life. And who is the psychiatrist? Well, the psychiatrist is that evil hardware engineer that realizes that every time that there is a new software installed in the computer the tiny elements that serve as a support to store the software change, thus he reaches the tremendously wrong conclusion that one can fix software problems by altering randomly one by one the bits of the storage system where the software lives. Instead of trusting the work of his fellow software engineer, he comes up with all sort of crazy hardware altering ideas (ECT, forced drugging) to fix software problems. From time to time, he gets lucky and one of those random hardware manipulations fixes something. He happily announces that to the world and says: see? I told you I know what I am doing. However, in most cases, his hardware interventions end up screwing up the software of the computer and, in the most dramatic cases, even the hardware to the point that the computer becomes useless (the patient dies). Who would let such a hardware engineer fix software problems? Nobody. How is that society lets psychiatrists use their quackery on innocent people?

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  6. Critical players in the diagnosis are the parents/spouses of the initially diagnosed. The general public does not buy the DSM-5, but it certainly “buys into” the diagnoses in this book. NAMI wouldn’t be where it is today if family members didn’t begin by “buying into” the diseased brain model that this organization peddles. So, boycotting, IMO, must be demonstrated by the people most able to reject the diagnosis. Usually the patient is in no such position by virtue of being too young, too “psychotic” and too inexperienced with dealing with authority figures. How do we get the messsage out to the parents/spouses before the first meeting with the doctor?

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    • Hi, Rossa. You’ve just given me an idea. While what you say is applicable to children and some adolescents, and while family support is indeed crucial to this endeavor — NAMI would never endorse it; too bad — most of the folks in the public mental health system are adults and the great majority are usually quite lucid. Would be great if they told their psychiatrists to boycott the DSM5, that they feared that manual and its diagnostic categories caused them more harm than good. Which leads me to see the growing number of peer-led organizations out there as potential leaders of this endeavor.
      Best, JC

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