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Parental Alienation and Mental Health

Does parental alienation qualify as a mental health condition?  The American Psychiatric Association says no, deciding against listing the term in its updated edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to recent reports.  Despite intense pressure from lobbying groups, psychologists and individual supporters, the updated manual, referred to as “DSM-5”, will reflect the APA’s decision not to classify parental alienation as a disorder or syndrome.

Whether or not parental alienation should be formally classified as a mental health disorder has been an active debate for several years, as both professionals and family members have joined the discussion.  Prior to the decision, the APA had recently come under pressure to include parental alienation, a term used to describe how a child’s relationship with one parent can be poisoned by the other, in the DSM.  Dr. Darel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual, said “The bottom line – it is not a disorder within one individual.  It’s a relationship problem – parent-child or parent-parent.  Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”

In spite of the APA’s decision, Dr. William Bernet, a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, contends that around 20,000 kids are affected by parental alienation in the US each year.  In his proposal to the APA, Bernet and other supporters throughout the US have been putting pressure on the organization to recognize parental alienation as a serious mental health condition.  According to Bernet and his supporters, the hope was that the addition of the term as a mental health condition in the manual might have helped in shaping fairer outcomes in family courts, and in facilitating mental health treatment designed for rebuilding a child’s relationship with an estranged parent.

The DSM-5, the first update made to the manual since 1994, will be published in May 2013.  The manual is relied on by mental health providers as a tool for assisting in the diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses.