Mad Narratives: Exploring Self-Constitutions Through the Diagnostic Looking Glass

Dissertation, York University (2010)
Abstract
In “Mad Narratives: Self-Constitutions Through the Diagnostic Looking Glass,” by using narrative approaches to the self, I explore how the diagnosis of mental disorder shapes personal identities and influences flourishing. My particular focus is the diagnosis grounded on the criteria provided by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). I develop two connected accounts pertaining to the self and mental disorder. I use the memoirs and personal stories written by the subjects with a DSM diagnosis as illustrations to bolster my claims. First, expanding on the narrative approaches to the self, I explain how narratives about a subject shape her self-constitution. I elucidate how this process is generated by drawing on research in developmental psychology, cognitive science, and social psychology. Next, using this account as a springboard, I argue that the DSM diagnosis of mental disorder serves as a source of narrative, entering into the patients’ autobiographical and social narratives. This plays an important role in the diagnosed subjects’ self-understanding, self-constitution and flourishing. In this vein, how mental disorders are classified is not only a theoretical question about accurately taxonomizing the various experiences related to mental distress but also an ethical question about which ways of talking about mental disorders will allow subjects to respond effectively to their psychological distress, to flourish and to live autonomous and fulfilling lives. Finally, I suggest that the DSM-based narratives wield a double-edged sword when it comes to the subject’s flourishing: On the one hand, there are problems with some DSM-based narratives that stem from the DSM diagnostic schema and the culture of DSM diagnoses. These problems render these DSM-based narratives unbeneficial for flourishing as they constrain the range of adoptive social, cognitive and emotional responses the subjects can give to their mental disorders. On the other hand, there are grounds to believe that some DSM-based narratives help subjects to flourish. For instance, they provide certainty to subjects' otherwise puzzling symptoms and help them reach out to others with similar experiences. Understanding how the DSM-based narratives can both benefit and harm will help us address problems with psychiatric diagnoses and the dissemination of knowledge about mental disorders in popular culture. The project aims to convince both philosophers and psychiatrists that no plausible theory of the self can be developed without attending to the topic of mental disorder and that no theory of mental disorder can be complete without devising the tools provided by the philosophical approaches to the self as well as developmental and social psychology. It also calls for methodological alterations in mental health ethics research, arguing that a careful scrutiny of mental disorder memoirs can advance the ethical underpinnings to the practice of psychiatry.
Keywords Self  Narrative Approaches to the Self  Mental DIsorders  Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)  Memoirs of Psychiatric Patients  Looping Effects  Flourishing  Personal Identity  Self-Constitution
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Rachel Cooper (2004). What is Wrong with the DSM? History of Psychiatry 15 (1):5-25.
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