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The new somatic symptom disorder in DSM-5 risks mislabeling many people as mentally ill

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 19 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1580
  1. Allen Frances, chair of the DSM-IV task force
  1. 11820 Avenida Del Mundo, Coronado, CAL 92118, USA
  1. allenfrances{at}

This new condition suggested in the bible of mental health diagnoses lacks specificity, says Allen Frances

The fuzzy boundary between psychiatry and general medicine is about to experience a seismic shift. The next edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is scheduled for release this May amid controversy about many of its new disorders. Among these, DSM-5 introduces a poorly tested diagnosis—somatic symptom disorder—which risks mislabeling a sizeable proportion of the population as mentally ill.

The relation between psychiatry and the rest of medicine has been difficult to manage both for mental health practitioners and for primary care doctors, and this is even more problematic for patients caught in-between. The boundary has never been clear cut or static but has shifted back and forth depending on new findings and fashions. The realm of psychiatry would shrink, and that of medicine would expand, whenever advancing science discovered a cause for a previously poorly understood presentation. The classic example of this is “general paresis of the insane,” which went from psychiatry to neurology as soon as the spirochete was identified as the causal agent.

In DSM-5, “somatic symptom disorder” appears in a new section, “Somatic symptoms and related disorders,” which replaces the “Somatoform disorders” section found in DSM-IV. This new category will …

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