For those of us who eagerly consume critiques of the mental health industry, this book is not necessarily what we have come to expect. I often expect what amounts to a quick adrenalin rush, with horror stories of abuse by the system driving me to the barricades. Kutchins and Kirk do not provide a quick rush, nor even a quick read. But when you find yourself on the barricades, they do give you the ammunition.
This is a very detailed social/political history of the DSM, in and out of committee meetings and individual correspondence, providing the evidence of the point made so well by others such as Kaplan: that the DSM is in fact a political document, evolving to suit conflicting political and financial interests. More than a story of good guys and bad guys, much of this history includes the sad moral of unintended consequences, as in the fight to get PTSD into the DSM.
I teach undergraduate psychology, and I applaud the authors' coherent explanations of technical issues such as reliablity and validity of assessment. My teaching experience informs me that this is a tedious exercise for most students, and, I assume, for the educated lay readership to whom Kutchins and Kirk appeal. But it is critical to the central theme of the story: the misuse of the aura of science to mask a fundamentally political process.
Are there victims and villains of this process? Of course, and they are the usual villains: a system of managed care, and a variety of bureaucracies and agencies pursuing government funding, grants and influence based on ultimately manipulated numbers. And the usual victims: the over-labelled, over-prescribed and stigmatized recipients of "care".
The story wanders through so many mazes that a reader may lose the thread: PTSD, homosexuality, female masochism, borderline personality disorder. Each story differs in who started the process of getting a diagnosis in or out of the DSM, the motivation for doing so, the outcome of the fight, and the specific consequences. Fortunately, the authors provide an excellent summary in the last chapter, and weave those threads back together.
More than once in reading this book, I found myself thinking that every political or social issue fight needs its policy wonks. Kutchins and Kirk may be our wonks.