The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is in the news again for bad public relations: worse than bad, actually – appalling. Locked in a bunker mentality, they have moved to stifle advance criticism of their flagship initiative, DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), which is a work in progress. Lawyers for the APA have threatened the owner of a UK blog that served as a discussion forum for issues affected by DSM-5 and other, international psychiatric classifications. The blog, named dsm5watch was considered authoritative and accurate. If you go to this site now you will find that it has been deleted.

As recounted this week by Allen Frances, MD, the editor of the last published DSM edition, the blog’s owner, Suzy Chapman, told him, ”On December 22, I was stunned to receive two emails from the Licensing and Permissions department of American Psychiatric Publishing, claiming that the domain name my site operates under was infringing upon the DSM 5 trademark in violation of United States Trademark Law and that my unauthorized actions may subject me to contributory infringement liability including increased damages for willful infringement. I was told to cease and desist immediately all use of the DSM 5 mark and to provide documentation within ten days confirming I had done so."

"Given my limited resources compared with APA's deep pockets, I had no choice but to comply and was forced to change my site's domain name to dxrevisionwatch. Hits to the new site have plummeted dramatically and it will take months for traffic to recover - just at the time when crucial DSM 5 decisions are being made."

In effect, the APA, acting not through its medical or scientific officers but through its wholly owned publishing house, has attempted a SLAPP maneuver. SLAPP is the acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation. What kind of leadership does this signal in a major professional organization?

The normal remit of professional medical societies is stewardship of professional values and ethics. That is why these societies are accorded deference and respect on matters of clinical guidelines, health policy and public education. Even when, like the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, they tolerate compromised members, they can generally hope to retain the public trust.

One reason for this assurance is that they are expected as a matter of professional duty to avoid conflicts of interest – personal and financial. The APA, however, has an enormous conflict in this case: it counts on millions of dollars in revenue from sales of the DSM volumes and it is under siege currently for perceived scientific and clinical weaknesses of the DSM-5 that is due to be released next year. Professional criticism is running so high that over 10,000 interested parties have signed a petition for the APA to reconsider planned changes. There is even talk of abandoning DSM-5 in favor of the ICD system (International Classification of Diseases), which is a WHO initiative.

The APA doesn’t own psychiatric classification and diagnostic criteria. When the field allows the APA to take the initiative for revisions of the DSM, it is with the understanding that the work will be conducted in the public interest rather than in the commercial interest of the APA itself, which is said to derive over $5 million annually in profits from DSM sales. The public interest and the public trust are served by transparency and open discussion, not by contrived SLAPP threats.

It is bad enough that the APA resorts to this legal artifice to stifle public discussion. When they do it through their lawyers and business entities rather than through their medical and scientific officers, they sink to a lower level yet. The parallels with corporate sleaze that we have discussed so often on this blog are obvious. For shame.