The Definition of Disease

I attended a lecture today about addiction where the lecturer claimed that the American Medical Association requires that a phenomenon meet the following criteria to be considered a disease:

1) It must be progressive

2) It must manifest identifiable symptoms

3) It must occur chronically in affected individuals

4) It must be fatal if left untreated

That makes some things obvious diseases. Cancers, for example. There are many things that we consider diseases that do not fit these criteria, though. I believe that obesity, for example, is not officially considered a disease because it is not fatal. It’s correlated with many fatal conditions but isn’t fatal on its own. Most mental disorders fail to meet this criteria too. Anorexia is fatal if untreated, but anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, ADHD, learning disorders, conduct disorders, psychotic disorders, and dissociative disorders and many others are not. There is a pretty good case to make for  alcoholism and some other addictions meeting these criteria. Disorders that are associated with suicidality, too, might qualify, like severe depression, and possibly “gender identity disorder,” though GID may not be progressive and so fail the first criteria.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, January 21, 2011.]

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Diagnostic Criteria for Gender Identity Disorder

The existence of Gender Identity Disorder as an official mental disorder is troubling to the trans folks I know. They think of their condition they way most people now think about homosexuality: It’s just another normal way to be a human being that makes people who don’t understand it so afraid that they’ve called it a disorder. Some people are just born into bodies that don’t match their psychological gender.

There are other problems. There is the DSM’s requirement to specify whether the diagnosed individual is attracted to males, females, both, or neither. If homosexuality is not a mental disorder, why should it matter clinically what genders a transsexual is attracted to? Then there’s the fact that GID is in the DSM right next to the sexual disorders like sexual sadism, masochism, and pedophilia. What is the connection?

So in a way, it would be great to get GID removed from the DSM, like homosexuality was in the 1970s. Unfortunately, if GID were not an official mental disorder, insurance companies wouldn’t pay for the expensive surgeries and hormone treatments involved in transitioning. According to my friends, living in a body of the wrong sex is so painful and humiliating that many pre-operation trans folks kill themselves, while suicide is rare for those who do who get the operations. So if you are poor and trans, your life may depend on GID being an official mental disorder.

There may be some changes coming to the diagnosis (see here) in the upcoming DSM-V, and my friends are saying they sound somewhat better. Here’s how they stand right now, in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR:

Diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder

A. A strong and persistent cross-gender identification (not merely a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex).

In children, the disturbance is manifested by four (or more) of the following:

(1) repeatedly stated desire to be, or insistence that he or she is, the other sex

(2) in boys, preference for cross-dressing or simulating female attire; in girls, insistence on wearing only stereotypical masculine clothing

(3) strong and persistent preferences for cross-sex roles in make-believe play or persistent fantasies of being the other sex

(4) intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex

(5) strong preference for playmates of the other sex

In adolescents and adults, the disturbance is manifested by symptoms such as a stated desire to be the other sex, frequent passing as the other sex, desire to live or be treated as the other sex, or the conviction that he or she has the typical feelings and reactions of the other sex.

B. Persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.

In children, the disturbance is manifested by any of the following: in boys, assertion that his penis or testes are disgusting or will disappear or assertion that it would be better not to have a penis, or aversion toward rough-and-tumble play and rejection of male  stereotypical toys, haves, and activities; in girls, rejection of urinating in a sitting position, assertion that she has or will grow a penis, or assertion that she does not want to grow breasts or menstruate, or marked aversion toward normative feminine clothing.

In adolescents and adults, the disturbance is manifested by symptoms such as preoccupation with getting rid of primary and secondary sex characteristics (e.g., request for hormones, surgery, or other procedures to physically alter sexual characteristics to simulate the other sex) or belief that he or she was born the wrong sex.

C. The disturbance is not concurrent with a physical intersex condition.

D. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Code based on current age:

302.6     Gender Identity Disorder in Children

302.85   Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescents or Adults

Specify if (for sexually mature individuals):

Sexually Attracted to Males

Sexually Attracted to Females

Sexually Attracted to Both

Sexually Attracted to Neither

[First posted on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, August 22, 2010.]