Last week saw the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) in New York City. SSPC’s mission includes “furthering research, clinical care and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness,” and although somewhat small includes some of the most prominent thinkers in the world of psychiatry and culture. These are the people who go beyond simplistic cultural diatheses (e.g., individualism versus collectivism), incorporating multidimensional frameworks that include political factors as well as ethnicity and race.
Among the livelier presentations was a report by Roberto Lewis-Fernandez, Neil Aggarwal (both at Columbia), Laurence Kirmayer (McGill), and Renato Alarcón (Mayo Clinic and Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia) on much needed updates to the Cultural Formulation guidelines in the upcoming DSM-5. The DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — is the American Psychiatric Association’s official guidebook to human psychopathology, and the current version, DSM-IV-TR, is largely accepted as the last word on mental health problems in psychiatry, psychology, social work, and related disciplines. Cultural Formulation guidelines are suggestions for how clinicians should conceptualize the role of culture in patients’ mental health problems. The guidelines appeared first in the pages of the DSM-IV (1994), but, along with a short and messy list of “Culture-Bound Syndromes,” were placed in the back of the book where few practitioners would ever find them.
This time around there is a widespread effort to place the Cultural Formulation front and center in the DSM-5. Drs. Lewis-Fernandez and Aggarwal reported on a tool designed to make cultural formulation quicker and easier, the Cultural Formulation Interview, or CFI. The CFI is meant to be administered during patients’ initial assessment, and consists of 14 questions. Many of these questions are just good clinical practice. For instance, the first question is, “What problems or concerns bring you to the clinic?” Although there are hints at what might be considered culture by question three (“People often understand their problems in their own way, which may be similar or different from how doctors explain the problem. How would you describe your problem to someone else?”), it’s not until the seventh question that culture is explicitly mentioned: ”Is there anything about your background, for example your culture, race, ethnicity, religion or geographical origin that is causing problems for you in your current life situation?”
The point of framing the questions this way is to not make a big deal of culture while at the same time getting a good person-centered assessment that considers culture as important to how patients view their problems. This is meant to avoid the stereotyping that considering culture often leads to in situations in which clinician and patient differ on some cultural dimension. The CFI seems to provide space for individuals to define their problems as they see fit — i.e., to make explicit their own explanatory models — and then relate this to how others within their social networks (including family members and those that don’t share their culture) may see their problems.
My favorite exchange came after one audience member looked over the CFI and asked, “For whom would these questions not be relevant?”
Dr. Lewis-Fernandez replied: “Yes, exactly.”
The CFI is currently undergoing field trials. Read more about the proposed DSM-5 Cultural Formulation and the CFI, and express your opinion as to whether it should be emphasized (or not, I suppose), by following this link to the DSM-5 commentary website. Common sense needs advocates.
On a related note: If you haven’t read it yet, Allen Frances’ Op-Ed in Saturday’s New York Times, provocatively titled Diagnosing the DSM, is worth it. In it Dr. Frances, one of the architects of the DSM-IV, argues strongly that the DSM-5 development process should be untethered from professional psychiatry in order to build a better product. A teaser:
Until now, the American Psychiatric Association seemed the entity best equipped to monitor the diagnostic system. Unfortunately, this is no longer true. D.S.M.-5 promises to be a disaster — even after the changes approved this week, it will introduce many new and unproven diagnoses that will medicalize normality and result in a glut of unnecessary and harmful drug prescription. The association has been largely deaf to the widespread criticism of D.S.M.-5, stubbornly refusing to subject the proposals to independent scientific review.