When Suffering Defies Diagnosis

Dinah Miller, MD

June 16, 2022

I still remember the woman who came to my office that day, years ago. She was struggling and uncomfortable, and she wanted "something" for stress. She described her life, and to me, it sounded stressful. She lived in a blended family and she described the chaos that one might expect to find in a household with four teens, their friends, their activities, and all it took to keep the household going.

I spent 2 hours evaluating the patient, and I could not find a diagnosis that fit this problem nor — I believed — a pill that would fix it. She didn't "meet criteria" for a psychiatric disorder, but she insisted she was uncomfortable and she wanted to try medication. I admit, I relented and I gave her a prescription for fluoxetine.

Dr Dinah Miller

When she returned a few weeks later, my patient said she felt better, and what I remember decades later was her statement: "Now I can see dishes in the sink and be okay with it." Perhaps she had downplayed her anxiety during our first meeting, but what I took from this was that some people are uncomfortable in ways that our lexicon does not capture, and sometimes medication helps with this discomfort.

The APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders attempts to capture the problems of emotional and behavioral distress and classify them into discrete syndromes that can be validated and reliably diagnosed by different evaluators. Our disorders are syndromic; they are defined by clusters of symptoms that occur together, and not by a single symptom, lab value, or radiologic finding. The DSM is rewritten periodically so that what is or is not a disorder can bend with new discoveries and with a changing culture. And for better or for worse, when there is an available medication that can alleviate a problem, this may influence what once was a variant of normal into becoming a disorder.

Our illnesses often lie along a spectrum, so there is no precise point where someone who is easily distracted is a person with attention deficit disorder as opposed to being a mentally healthy person who is easily distracted, or a shy person is someone with social anxiety disorder. At the extremes, pathology and dysfunction are obvious, but sometimes we are left to let patients define whether they are suffering, whether they want to address this with medications, and whether their distress warrants taking a chance that they might have side effects or an adverse reaction to a medication.

When we look at our criteria, sometimes we fall short. One needs to have at least five symptoms out of nine options, to be present for 2 weeks to be diagnosed with major depression, yet I don't know a single psychiatrist who would not offer medication to a patient who ascribed to feeling profoundly sad with thoughts of suicide in the absence of other symptoms of depression. These issues have come to the forefront with the recent inclusion of prolonged grief in the DSM, as a disorder that is distinct from both normal grieving and from major depression.

In recent weeks, mass murder has been on everyone's mind as we mourn those lost in Uvalde, Buffalo, and unfortunately, in so many other places. Absolutely no one thinks that someone who shoots strangers is "normal" or emotionally well. Yet psychiatry is often tasked with figuring out if someone is mad (mentally ill), bad (evil), or both. We don't have a clear path for how to treat and manage people who commit horrendous acts of violence unless they meet criteria for another illness. Yet no one would argue that a person who informs others that he is thinking of killing strangers is in need of some type of intervention, regardless of his motive.

We struggle too, with how to manage people who have more regular angry outbursts or emotional dysregulation. Perhaps we diagnose intermittent explosive disorder, or irritability caused by a mood disorder, but we don't always know how to help people to control their tempers and modulate their emotions. And our semantics to describe psychic pain and anguish are surprisingly limited — sometimes we can only assume that someone who lashes out must be in turmoil.

Psychiatry continues to struggle with our relationship with human suffering. Suffering is part of life, not necessarily a sign of illness, and in his iconic memoir, "Man's Search for Meaning," psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, MD, wrote of the atrocities he endured in a Nazi concentration camp. It was through his suffering that Frankl found meaning and he used these harrowing experiences to fuel positive emotions later in life. Frankl wrote: "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete."

Suffering may be the kindling for acts of violence, or for profound creativity. Would we have music, art, cinema, poetry, or fiction if no one ever suffered? Yet suffering and emotional torment are often what leads people to seek treatment, and what leads us, as healers, to offer any range of therapies.

For years, suicide rates have been rising, as have overdose death. And now, in addition to these "deaths of despair," we are hearing about skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety in our world that is so full of reasons to be sad and anxious. Access to treatment is limited by so many things, and it is not always clear when one needs psychiatric interventions or when problems will heal on their own, leaving scars or not.

I wrote this article in response to the hundreds of comments that were placed on an article I wrote after the horrors at Uvalde and Buffalo: "Don't Equate Mass Shootings with Mental Illness." Many of the commenters suggested I believe the shooter was perfectly sane, and that I am naive (or worse).

Many wrote in with their own thoughts about what causes people to become mass murderers. One commenter wrote: "To suggest that random killers do not have mental health issues and their behavior is normal is ridiculous." I don't believe that I ever suggested that such behavior was normal, but — for many of these crimes — we as a society have decided to treat the behavior as criminal and not as the product of our current concept of mental disorders. Obviously, people who are well, who are emotionally at peace and comfortable in their own skin, don't kill strangers.

Miller is a co-author of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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