"DSM-IV Made Easy: The Clinician's Guide to Diagnosis," James Morrison

Pros: Accessible; fascinating; helpful; great research material
Cons: Could use a little more edetail in places
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 12/3/2000

The DSM-IV itself is the widely-known Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental disorders, version 4. Anyone who has taken a decent selection of psychology courses is likely to have picked up a copy of this book at one time or another. The DSM-IV is also rather widely-known for being a real pain to deal with. It has to fit a lot of information in a small space, and much of that information is uncertain, disputed, thick with heavy terminology, or just unclear.

This isn’t the fault of the DSM-IV. The fields of psychology and psychiatry are an ever-shifting morass of uncertainty. No one really knows how the brain and mind work, and more is discovered all the time. So categories shift, theories go out of style, new data is collected, and people just plain change their minds.

Life: Made Easy

This is where the “DSM-IV Made Easy: The Clinician’s Guide to Diagnosis” comes in. This book is aimed at psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who will be making diagnoses on a regular basis. It attempts to translate the thick, heavy terminology of diagnosis into something that most people will be able to understand. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrates most of the principles involved with case studies, actual stories of real-life disorders.

In this goal I believe it succeeds well (although not perfectly). You can tell that this book is aimed at mental health professionals; a certain amount of terminology is used, and some things are not explained as well as I would like. A little more detail would be useful in some places. (Mind you, this book is aimed at mental health professionals, not at the rest of us, so it’s hard to mark the book down for this. For this reason, I’ll give it a 5 rather than a 4, because it does succeed in its goal. The fact that I use this book for something other than its stated purpose should not lower the rating that the book gets!)

The case studies are well-written and interesting. The author has a spare-but-coherent style that I enjoy. The case studies aren’t too dry, but neither do they embellish. Each case study is followed by an evaluation, to give a concrete example of how a real-life person might be evaluated and diagnosed, to show how dry diagnoses relate to real-life conditions. In many ways, it humanizes the psychological diagnosis, and helps to de-mystify how psychologists diagnose their patients. In particular, the case study followed by evaluation is useful for the mental health professional. Finally, you’ll see examples of DSM-IV diagnosis that involve all the weird abnormalities and confusions you’ll find when diagnosing real people!

Dr. Morrison sprinkles useful “tips” in various places that explain odd quirks of the DSM-IV in greater detail. He also goes into fair detail on the criteria for various disorders; if you’re a writer just looking for inspiration or background material, you may in large part be able to use this book instead of the actual DSM-IV, rather than as a supplement to it. (If you’re a mental health professional, obviously that isn’t an option!)

Not Just for Mental Health Professionals

I know, you’re thinking that you didn’t see anything in here that said I was a professional in the mental health field. Well, I’m not. Oh, and don’t worry – I’m not one of those people who runs around trying to play amateur psychologist by diagnosing my friends and family and giving them entirely unsolicited advice that would probably do more harm than good. (The very thought makes me shudder. Can you tell I’ve had run-ins with people like this? Talk about unethical behavior!) Ahem. Rant over. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have this book because I’m a writer. Mental illness comes up all the time in various types of writing. I might want to check facts when writing about someone who has a type of mental illness. I might want to make sure I’m being realistic when describing a character in a story. There are all sorts of uses for this book when doing background research. As someone who has bipolar disorder, I’m very big into the idea that mental illness should be treated with a little accuracy and respect in the popular media, so I like to try to contribute to that. Besides, it makes for amazing research and inspiration. Some of these case studies are fascinating. I’ve been known to read this book just because, and yes it has given me ideas for stories now and then.

So if you’re a mental health professional, it can’t hurt to have more information with which to make accurate diagnoses, can it? If you’re a writer, also consider getting a copy of this book. It’s a wonderfully helpful research tool, and it may surprise you by inspiring you.

Just don’t get a copy of this book if all you plan to do is play unlicensed therapist. There are things you can do which will mess up your relatives more, but this is certainly up there on the list.

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