In my Assessment and Diagnosis class last semester (for graduate school in Social Work), I had to spend a week studying the personality disorders. These are, at least for now, seen as the enduring pathological character traits people live with in their daily lives. The personality disorders are separated out from other mental health disorders because of their lifelong nature, and because, usually, the patient doesn’t see his or her behavior as problematic, which makes them very hard to treat. But more often than not, the personality disorders are used as epithets, by lay people and clinicians, to describe people who resist therapeutic help. The current list of personality disorders is broken into three clusters: the not-quite-schizophrenia-but-still-odd-and-occasionally-psychotic personality disorders; the criminal-manipulative-lacking empathy-selfish personality disorders; and the fearful-avoidant-dependent-obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.
This small strip of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has come up recently, in our public dialogue, as people struggle to explain the president’s behavior. We don’t know if he has dementia, or some other mental illness or medical diagnosis, but we can certainly see traits that fit Narcissistic (grandiose and exploiting of others), Histrionic (melodramatic and attention seeking), Paranoid (preoccupied with doubts of loyalty in others), and Antisocial (lying, intentionally harming others, and lacking empathy) Personality Disorders.
The value of the personality disorders is that they give us categories to put people into when they consistently behave in abnormal ways, and categories can help us feel like we have some control, and some understanding, about what’s going on around us. But, are personality disorders actually mental illnesses, or something else? The personality disorders attempt to describe the perpetrator of domestic violence (Antisocial personality disorder), and the victim (Dependent personality disorder), as equally ill, and/or equally character disordered. Meaning that as a society we have as little compassion for victims as for perpetrators, something that is objectively true, but still horrifying. Other personality disorders are just lower level, and more persistent, versions of mental illnesses we already have in the book, like Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which is seen as different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (and, yes, that’s weird).
The personality disorders are the most extreme example of what’s wrong with the DSM: it focuses only on the negatives, the weaknesses, and the disorders of human beings, and never on the strengths that mitigate illness. The same person who has Major Depressive Disorder may also have a great support system that keeps her going. The same person who obsessively washes his hands or checks the lock on his door, maybe also obsessively study or work or create and accomplish great things. The same person who lives daily with Social Anxiety Disorder may have an even stronger need and desire to connect with other people, which allows her to reach out despite her fear.
Miss Cricket has her own reason for thinking that the personality disorders are unnecessary: she knows, in her gut, who to spend time with and who to avoid, and she doesn’t think she needs a diagnostic manual to help her. For her, it’s all about a complicated internal set of calculations, based on how much you smell like someone who gives out chicken treats (she is doing her best to teach Miss Ellie this wisdom as well). I have seen no mention of generosity with chicken treats, or any other positive character traits, in DSM 5. Clearly they have more work to do for the next edition.