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New DSM Guidelines May Label Millions More as “Alcoholics”

What if a night of heavy drinking was enough to diagnose you as an alcoholic? That may not be too far off following the American Psychiatric Association’s proposed redefining of “alcoholism” in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Mild and Moderate Cases are Now Included

Currently the DSM distinguishes between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency. The new guidelines would create mild, moderate and severe forms of “alcohol use disorder.” The list of symptoms will also expand, and people will only need to exhibit a few of them to be labeled. This means millions of people who previously didn’t qualify for a diagnosis could now fit the criteria.

A Confusing Definition Might Confuse Treatment

It’s said that up to 40 percent of college students engage in nights of heavy drinking — would they now be considered alcoholics? What about someone who enjoys one glass of wine most nights after work? Medical experts are debating the idea of a “mild addiction,” as an addiction is defined by a change in brain biochemistry. They point out that those who occasionally abuse alcohol are distinct from those who are chemically dependent on the substance. They also warn that treatment for these two groups should be strategically tailored to these differences.

The Pros and Cons

On the one hand, an expanded definition of alcoholism might catch the condition in its early stages, allowing those who need treatment to recognize their problem and get well before their issue turns to dependence. On the other hand, scarce public health resources will be stretched even thinner, adversely affecting underprivileged populations who need help and rely on government-funded programs. Further, the psychological effect of labeling someone as an addict is hard to predict. It may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy in some, potentially fueling further substance abuse. Others may be convinced they are more helpless than they really are, putting them at risk for over treatment. What do you think? Please tell us in the comments! (Photo via)

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