Vinay Menon: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is suddenly a bestseller on Amazon — this is not good for anyone’s mental health

Seventy years after it was first published, a new version of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” is an Amazon bestseller this week.

I haven’t given much thought to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” since university when it was often bedtime reading.

I was contemplating a future in forensic psychology before newspapering stole my heart, which means I am afflicted with Bad Choice Syndrome.

The DSM was as dry as the Sahara, even when outlining conditions that sounded fantastical. I once joked with a professor that reading the DSM might create a spike in narcolepsy. She did not laugh.

Laughing is for laypeople. The DSM is for clinicians who require a set of criteria before trying to figure out why you are suddenly terrified of spiders or feel compelled to hoard Canadian Tire money in your underpants.

Doc, my private parts are saving for the MotoMaster Carburetor Cleaner.

Doc, my cat lights up a cigarette and watches me when I sleep.

The DSM was to aspiring psychiatrists as “Gray’s Anatomy” was to pre-med students with an interest in surgery. To everyone outside of psychology, buying the DSM made about as much sense as investing in a riding mower when you live in a condo. The DSM was for experts, not laypeople.

But in this age of Dr. Google and self-diagnosis, the DSM is suddenly as popular as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” circa 1992. As Axios noted on Wednesday: “The psychiatrist’s bible is suddenly a surprise bestseller.”

I love the “Why It Matters” section of an Axios story, which includes a preamble and digestible bullets so a dummy like me can follow along: “A record shortage of mental health providers, combined with unprecedented demand for psychological support, has led to a surge in self-diagnosis …”

Cue the bullets:

  • “With so many sources of emotional stress — the pandemic, gun violence, urban crime, the war in Ukraine — everyone wants to know if their own difficult feelings could be signs of something bigger.”
  • “The number of people showing symptoms of anxiety and depression tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

It’s strange to see the DSM perched at No. 1 on an Amazon bestseller chart in 2022, 70 years after the first version was published. I remain a pro-book and pro-reading absolutist. But I must caution my fellow compatriots against self-diagnosing possible mental disorders in this crazy time.

We live in an age of pathologizing. We’ve turned into armchair psychiatrists. I often call the former U.S. president a malignant narcissist or pathological liar — and I’ve never met the self-centred, mendacious lunatic.

People used to be people. Now we see people as undiagnosed others.

Jim from marketing just rearranged the icons on his desktop 30 times before the PowerPoint presentation? Clearly, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Priyanka from accounts receivable fake smiled and said she fixed a typo in your invoice? What a passive-aggressive little bitch!

Some conditions in the DSM, especially under the rubric of “Disruptive, Impulse-Control and Conduct Disorders,” are easy to rule out. If you’ve never fantasized about pouring kerosene around a barn and lighting a match, watching it burn, you probably don’t need to be treated for pyromania. I don’t steal cauliflower. It is not needed for personal use — it’s actually vile — and it brings no financial gain.

So, phew, I’m not a kleptomaniac.

That said, if Weekend Chores Phobia ever makes it into the DSM, I’ve got that disease. I also suffer from a fear of pharmaceutical ads on cable. They start by rattling off symptoms that could apply to anyone. Then they segue into a rapid-fire list of side effects that should terrify everyone.

Gosh, yes, I do have dry mouth. But do I really want to run the risk of thrush?

Imagine if a mattress ad warned about possible spontaneous combustion.

Most of the DSM is a grey area that requires professional assessment. Robert Smith, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, told Axios this month’s brisk sales may reflect “a frantic attempt to get some help somewhere, but it’s not going to help people.”

Why? “The criteria in DSM, they are not easy to understand. In fact, primary care docs don’t use them because they’re difficult to understand.”

If your GP isn’t clear on the vagaries of borderline personality disorder, you probably shouldn’t try to confirm the diagnosis by ordering a book. In popular culture, schizophrenia is often confused with multiple personality disorder. I’m pretty sure my wife thinks I suffer from severe mutism. I don’t. I just have no choice but to listen in silence because she won’t stop talking about all the weekend chores I have to do and, holy hell, is that a spider?

We are dealing with a real mental health crisis and the pandemic only amplified our malaise. I have friends who are really struggling. But that doesn’t mean we should self-diagnose our own psychological states.

That’s only going to complicate the problem.

Would you feel comfortable self-diagnosing liver cancer or a coronary arrhythmia? Exactly. You’d want doctors and medical science and tests and expert opinion. You’d want a system in your personal corner.

Our minds and personalities deserve the same.

The DSM, I can tell you with personal certainty, is not pleasure reading.

A lot of it is impossible to even understand.

If you need mental health help, do not look for it on Amazon.

Talk to a doctor not named Google.

Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon


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