Original Research

Social and ethical implications of psychiatric classification for low- and middle-income countries

Jonathan K Burns
South African Journal of Psychiatry | Vol 20, No 3 | a589 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v20i3.589 | © 2014 Jonathan K Burns | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 11 March 2014 | Published: 30 August 2014

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With the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition, and the ongoing revision of the International Classification of Diseases, currently 10th edition, it is timely to consider the wider societal implications of evolving psychiatric classification, especially within low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). 

The author reviewed developments in psychiatric classification, especially the move from categorical to dimensional approaches based on biobehavioural phenotypes. While research supports this move, there are several important associated ethical challenges. Dimensional classification runs the risk of ‘medicalising’ a range of normality; the broadening of some definitions and the introduction of new disorders means more people are likely to attract psychiatric diagnoses. Many LMICs do not have the political, social, legal and economic systems to protect individuals in society from the excesses of medicalisation, thus potentially rendering more citizens vulnerable to forms of stigma, exploitation and abuse, conducted in the name of medicine and psychiatry. Excessive medicalisation within such contexts is also likely to worsen existing disparities in healthcare and widen the treatment gap, as inappropriate diagnosis and treatment of mildly ill or essentially normal people has an impact on health budgets and resources, leading to relative neglect of those with genuine, severe psychiatric disorders. 

In an era of evolving psychiatric classification, those concerned for, and involved in, global mental health should be critically self-reflective of all aspects of the modern psychiatric paradigm, especially changes in classification systems, and should alert the global profession to the sociopolitical, economic and cultural implications of changing nosology for LMIC regions of the world.


Psychiatric classification; Low- and middle-income countries; Ethics; Global mental health


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