Blogging Against Disablism Day: Sexism & Personality Disorder Diagnoses

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

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By way of Elaine, I discovered that today is Blogging Against Disablism Day. (There are so many blog against/blog for/blog about days, it’s hard to keep track. Anyone know of a roundup or a calendar something? Similar to The Truth Laid Bare’s Ubercarnival? Which has been giving me a database error like forevah? Anyones?)

Initially, when Elaine mentioned Blogging Against Disablism Day, I wasn’t planning on participating; not because it’s an issue I don’t care about, but because I wasn’t sure what I might contribute to the conversation. In today’s post, Elaine discusses mental disability, more specifically, depression, generalized anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder, which got me thinking.

As an undergrad, I majored in psychology (I know, *groan* – not another one of those human resources assholes. But I was *serious* about my classes, dammit!) and, aside from the required courses, was given some degree of latitude in my psych studies. Between my psych major and my honors classes, I was even allowed to earn six credits through independent study projects – two fairly comprehensive literature reviews, one of social anxiety disorder (“The Identification and Etiology of Social Phobia”) and another on personality disorders (“Assessing Axis II: Issues & Controversies Surrounding Personality Disorder Diagnoses”). Even cooler, the lone clinical psychology professor at my college was also heavy into women’s studies, so I was able to take several of her courses – while she supervised my projects. As a result, one semester I had the opportunity to tackle the same topic for two different classes, both with my totally awesome feminist prof.

So my last semester of college, I literally spent half my time researching and critiquing personality disorders – categorical vs. continuum models, the Axis I/II distinction, problems with diagnostic instruments and criteria, the biased application of personality disorder diagnoses, etc. By far the most fascinating topic – perhaps because I was simultaneously taking my first and only women’s studies course, Psychology & Women – is the amount of gender bias inherent in Axis II diagnoses. That is, in most of the personality disorder labels.

For my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day, I thought I might excerpt a portion of “Sex & Gender Bias in Personality Disorder Diagnoses” (2001 – my, how I date myself!), my final paper for the Psychology & Women course. Why, you ask? Well, it’s important to recognize that the psychiatric and medical communities are just like any other, warts and all; even supposedly objective professionals bring personal agendas and biases to the table. These color both the research and application of mental disorders and their diagnoses, such that a seemingly scientific condition such as depression can serve to reinforce (or enforce) gender roles. In the past, the DSM identified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and in the ’50s, lobotomies came into favor with the families of women who did not, or could not, fulfill their gender roles satisfactorily. In short, medical professionals don’t always operate with the patient’s best interests in mind.

While there are a number of ways in which personality disorders reflect sex and gender bias, tonight I’ll focus on the criteria itself. The very symptoms one must exhibit to “earn” a personality disorder diagnosis oftentimes reflect gender roles, such that a woman (or man) who conforms too closely to her or his stereotyped gender role may be diagnosed with a personality disorder.

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