A common refrain in psychiatry is that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision, (DSM-5-TR), published in 2022, is the best we can do.
Since the DSM-III was released in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the manual, has espoused the position that we should list symptoms, in a manner that is reminiscent of a checklist. For example, having a depressed mood on most days for a 2-week period, or a loss of interest in pleasurable things, as well as 4 additional symptoms – among them changes in appetite, changes in sleep, changes in psychomotor activity, fatigue, worthlessness, poor concentration, or thoughts of death – can lead to a diagnosis of a major depressive episode as part of a major depressive disorder.
Criticisms of this approach can be apparent. Patients subjected to such checklists, including being repeatedly asked to complete the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9), which closely follows those criteria, can feel lost and even alienated by their providers. After all, one can ask all those questions and make a diagnosis of depression without even knowing about the patient’s stressors, their history, or their social context.
The DSM permits the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders without an understanding of the narrative of the patient. In its defense, the DSM is not a textbook of psychiatry, it is a guide on how to diagnose individuals. The DSM does not demand that psychiatrists only ask about the symptoms on the checklists; it is the providers who can choose to dismiss asking about the important facets of one’s life.
Yet every time we attend a lecture that starts by enumerating the DSM symptoms of the disorder being discussed, we are left with the dissatisfying impression that a specialist of this disorder should have a more nuanced and interesting description of their disorder of study. This feeling of discontent is compounded when we see a movie that encompasses so much of what is missing in today’s psychiatric parlance, and even more so if that movie is ostensibly made for children. Movies, by design, are particularly adept at encapsulating the narrative of someone’s life in a way that psychiatry can learn from.
Other than the embarrassment of not knowing a patient outside the checklist, the importance of narrative cannot be understated. Dr. Erik Erikson rightfully suggested that the point of life is “the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle”1 or rather to know it was okay to have been oneself without additions or substitutions. Therefore, one must know what it has meant to be themselves to reconcile this question and achieve Ego Integrity rather than disgust and despair. Narrative is the way in which we understand who we are and what it has meant to be ourselves. An understanding of our personal narrative presents a unique opportunity in expressing what is missing in the DSM. Below, we provide two of our favorite examples in Disney films, among many.