Placing symptoms in context: The role of contextual criteria in reducing false positives in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders diagnoses

Jerome C. Wakefield, Michael B. First

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

Purpose: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition of mental disorder requires that symptoms be caused by a dysfunction in the individual; when dysfunction is absent, symptoms represent normal-range distress or eccentricity and, if diagnosed as a mental disorder, are false positives. We hypothesized that because of psychiatry's lack of direct laboratory tests to distinguish dysfunction from normal-range distress, the context in which symptoms occur (eg, lack of imminent danger in a panic attack) is often essential to determining whether symptoms are caused by a dysfunction. If this is right, then the DSM diagnostic criteria should include many contextual criteria added to symptom syndromes to prevent dysfunction false positives. Despite their potential importance, such contextual criteria have not been previously reviewed. We, thus, systematically reviewed DSM categories to establish the extent of such uses of contextual criteria and created a typology of such uses. Results: Of 111 sampled categories, 68 (61%) used context to prevent dysfunction false positives. Contextual criteria fell into 7 types: (1) exclusion of specific false-positive scenarios; (2) requiring that patients experience preconditions for normal responses (eg, requiring that individuals experience adequate sexual stimulation before being diagnosed with sexual dysfunctions); (3) requiring that symptoms be disproportionate relative to circumstances; (4) for childhood disorders, requiring that symptoms be developmentally inappropriate; (5) requiring that symptoms occur in multiple contexts; (6) requiring a substantial discrepancy between beliefs and reality; and (7) a residual category. Conclusions: Most DSM categories include contextual criteria to eliminate false-positive diagnoses and increase validity of descriptive criteria. Future revisions should systematically evaluate each category's need for contextual criteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)130-139
Number of pages10
JournalComprehensive Psychiatry
Volume53
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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