Is psychiatry scientific? A letter to a 21st century psychiatry resident

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During the development of the DSM-5, even the lay press questioned psychiatry's scientific validity. This review provides 21st century psychiatry residents with ways of answering these attacks by defining the concepts and history of psychiatry (a branch of medicine), medicine and science. Psychiatric language has two levels: first, describing symptoms and signs (19th century descriptive psychopathology developed in France and Germany), and second, describing disorders (psychiatric nosology was developed in the early 20th century by Kraepelin and resuscitated by the US neo-Kraepelinian revolution leading to the DSM-III). Science is a complex trial-and-error historical process that can be threatened by those who believe too much in it and disregard its limitations. The most important psychiatric advances, electroconvulsive therapy and major psychopharmacological agents, were discovered by "chance", not by scientific planning. Jaspers's General Psychopathology is a complex 100-year-old book that describes: 1) psychiatric disorders as heterogeneous and 2) psychiatry as a hybrid scientific discipline requiring a combination of understanding (a social science method) and explanation (a natural science method). In the 21st century Berrios reminds us of psychiatry's unfortunate methodological issues due to hybrid symptoms and disorders, some of which are better understood as problems in communication between interacting human beings; in those situations neuroscience methods such as brain imaging make no sense. A new language is needed in psychiatry. East Asian psychiatry residents, who are not particularly attached to the antiquated language currently used, may be particularly equipped for the task of recreating psychiatric language using 21st century knowledge.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-217
Number of pages13
JournalPsychiatry Investigation
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Asia
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Europe
  • History, 19th century
  • History, 20th century
  • History, 21st century
  • Mental disorders
  • Psychiatry
  • United States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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