Letter in Newsday by Michael Schwartz, MD, Objects to Claims of Overdiagnosis of Mental Disorders

shwartzIn a letter published in Newsday on January 31, 2012, Associate Professor of Psychiatry Michael Schwartz, MD responded to an opinion piece written the week before by Newsday columnist Daniel Akst suggesting that mental illness is overdiagnosed.

In his column, titled “Overdiagnosis can make you crazy”, Mr. Akst scoffed at estimates that 20 percent of American adults suffer some form of mental illness in any given year. He argued that these figures indicate that too many people medicalize normal life. He cited as evidence the growth of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) over the years and suggested that profit motivates pharmaceutical companies and mental health providers to promote overdiagnosis.

Describing Mr. Akst’s article as “irresponsible”, Dr. Schwartz responded that “if anything, psychiatric diagnoses are underdiagnosed in the general population”, noting that careful epidemiological studies have found fairly high rates of mental illness in the general population over several decades.  Mr. Akst need not worry about the overuse of psychiatric services, Dr. Schwartz said, because of uninformed attitudes like his and restrictions on access to mental health professionals. The DSM has grown, he noted, not by adding diseases, but by more carefully specifying the diagnostic classifications contained in it.

Mr. Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board. Dr. Schwartz is Director of Residency Training in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stony Brook University.