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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

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

Extracts from Somatic Symptom Disorders Work Group 'Disorders Description' document, published May 2011, for the second DSM-5 stakeholder review [1]:

"The presentation of these symptoms may vary across the lifespan. A corroborative historian with a life course perspective may provide important information for both the elderly and for children."

"PFAMC [Psychological Factors Affecting Medical Condition]* can occur across the lifespan. Particularly with young children, corroborative history from parents or school can assist the diagnostic evaluation."

"In the elderly somatic symptoms and comorbid medical illnesses are more common, and thus a focus on criteria B becomes more important. In the young child, the 'B criteria' may be principally expressed by the parent."

It appears, then, that the 'B type' Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD) criteria are intended for application where the parent(s) of a child with chronic somatic symptoms are perceived to be expressing 'excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,' or 'disproportionate and persistent concerns,' or 'maladaptive' coping strategies; or considered to be devoting 'excessive time and energy' to [a child's] symptoms or health concerns or demonstrating 'dysfunctional and maladaptive beliefs' about symptoms or disease.

There is no evidence that SSD or PFAMC have been field tested by APA or by any other group for safety and reliability of application in children and young people.

If the finalized criteria sets and texts for this section allow for the application of a diagnosis of Somatic Symptom Disorder where a parent is considered to be excessively concerned with a child's symptoms, families caring for children with any chronic disease or condition may be placed at risk of wrongful accusation of 'over-involvement' with a child's symptomatology.

Where a parent is perceived as enabling 'maintenance of sick role behaviour' in a child or young person this can provoke a devastating cascade of intervention: placement or threat of placement on the 'at risk register'; social services and child protection investigation; in some cases, court intervention for removal of a sick child out of the home environment and into foster care or for enforced in-patient rehabilitation against the wishes of the family.

This is already happening in the UK, USA and currently in Denmark, in families with a child or young person with chronic illness or disability, notably with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME. It may happen more frequently in families where a diagnosis of chronic childhood illness + SSD has been applied.

This section of DSM-5, seemingly overlooked by clinicians in the field, both within and outside psychiatry and psychosomatics and by medico-legal and disability specialists demands urgent scrutiny and investigation.

*Note: In DSM-IV-TR, PFAMC is located in the Appendix under 'Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention.' For DSM-5, PFAMC is being relocated to the mental disorders classifications and coded under the new section 'Somatic Symptoms and Related Disorders' that replaces DSM-IV-TR's 'Somatoform Disorders.'



Competing interests: I reviewed and provided comment and suggestions for this BMJ commentary by Allen Frances, MD. I run a website that archives and reports on DSM-5 and ICD-11 activities.

27 March 2013
Suzy Chapman
Patient advocate
Poole, Dorset BH16 6BG