"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Barack? Hillary? SpongeBob? WHO CARES?

If there's one thing all the pundits agree on, it's that this presidential primary fight has ignited the nation. More people are involved, debating--and voting--than ever before.

Except, it turns out, for some people. Which means...what, exactly?

Funny you should ask.

As a therapist, I read a lot of professional journals. Recently, one of them proposed that a new category of mental illness be added to the DSM, the clinical manual used by most therapists. They want to call this new condition Political Apathy Disorder, and its main symptom is showing a lack of concern for human suffering in the world.

In other words, you're not just an insensitive jerk, you're sick.

Do you have Political Apathy Disorder? The answer is a resounding Yes!--if, for example, you refuse to vote or, fail to consider the impact on the environment when making a purchase. Or buy something you really don't need, just because you like it.

Other symptoms include acting in an "elitist" manner--whatever that means--and telling ethnic jokes. Believe me, I wish I were making this up. But even as we speak, people with Ph.D's are actually debating whether to add this diagnosis to the growing list of things that might be wrong with you, that you didn't know about.

For what it's worth, I'm against it.

True, refusing to vote may be irresponsible. Perhaps a shirking of your duties as a citizen. But evidence of mental illness?

My concern here is with this growing trend of assigning diagnostic labels to literally every human behavior. And we're starting 'em young. For example, we've spent the last two decades diagnosing an increasing number of children with Attention Deficit Disorder. (Which, by the way, has already become passe. Nowadays, the fastest-growing diagnosis for kids is bipolar disorder. I guess that means screenwriters and rock stars will just have to come up with another one.)

What's next? Will we soon be labeling "problem" children as sociopaths, because they can't empathize with another kid whose toy they took? Or don't show sufficient remorse for licking the icing off their brother's birthday cake?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting we throw out the whole system. But let's face it: diagnostic labels exist for the convenience of the labelers. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with convenience. Or with a common language that enables all us clinical geniuses to talk with one another.

But it makes me wonder: does every trait, behavior, or private thought have to come with a label? In our haste to understand the human condition, do we want to smooth off all the edges, quantify all the quirks? Should we really reduce the many contradictions that make up an individual's personality to a category in some manual?

This isn't a rhetorical question. I really wonder about it. A lot. So much so, in fact, that it might indicate the need for a new diagnostic category: Pervasive Wondering Disorder.

I can imagine others: Excessive Daydreaming Disorder. Insufficient Outrage about Eliot Spitzer Disorder. Or how about: Dogmatic Belief in Diagnostic Labels Disorder.

Bet they won't put that in the manual.

But, really, where will all this labeling end? (A question, no doubt, symptomatic of Apocalyptic Obsessional Disorder.)
Or am I making too much of the issue? (Reflexive Self-Invalidating Disorder, with Mixed Emotional Features.)

See what I mean? That's the trouble with labeling. Once you get started, it's damned hard to stop.

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