What is the DSM?

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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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Mental illness is more at the forefront of society than it used to be. With this increased visibility, people have started looking at psychiatric references as vital reading, especially if they have a family member who is mentally ill. One of the first books many people read is the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the official reference book for psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors and therapists.

The DSM categorizes and describes mental illnesses; presents diagnostic criteria, treatment options and prognoses; and details research findings. It is in the office of almost every mental health care professional. The DSM divides mental illness into five axes.

Axis I covers clinical syndromes like schizophrenia ad depression. Axis II includes developmental and personality disorders such as autism, mental retardation, paranoia and antisocial personality disorders. Axis III deals with physical conditions, such as patients who suffer from decreased function because of a brain injury. Axis IV discusses the severity of psychosocial stressors, and Axis V helps determine the patient’s highest level of functioning. A mental health professional consults the DSM to determine whether a patient’s functioning has decreased or increased since it was last measured.


The DSM assists a mental health professional in diagnosing mental illness. It provides a list of symptoms for any given disorder and tells the health professional how many symptoms must be present in order for the condition to be diagnosed. Even those who are not counselors or psychiatrists may find the DSM helpful. For instance, a physical, speech or music therapist might consult the DSM to learn the symptoms of a patient’s diagnosis, and may be able to tailor the therapy to better benefit the patient. If a physical therapist consults the DSM and finds that a patient is taking a medication that affects balance or movement, he or she may want to focus on those areas to help improve the patient’s function.

The DSM is revised every so often, as more knowledge about mental illness, origin and treatment becomes available. The latest edition of the work is the DSM-IV. The next edition of the DSM is expected to be released in 2011.


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