The American Psychiatric Association is contemplating adding something called "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS) to the new edition of the DSM, scheduled to be published in May 2013, and the question has launched a national lobbying in the US and letter-writing campaigns on both sides.
Angry letters and editorials should not play any part in a debate about mental health and custody disputes but the fact these are being listened to tells you most of what you need to know about the validity of PAS.
What is parental alienation syndrome? William Bernet, a professor of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an advocate for its inclusion in the DSM-5, describes it as "a mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce, allies himself or herself strongly with one parent, and rejects a relationship with the other parent, without legitimate justification."
There is no doubt that an ugly divorce can affect kids' relationship with their parents or cause children to choose sides, often in anger. In fact, that probably happens more often than not.
But Bernet and others who argue for adding PAS to the new edition of DMS, the official catalogue of mental health, want to see it recognized as a legitimate mental health disorder because it will "spur health insurance coverage, stimulate more systematic research, lend credence to [the] charge of parental alienation in court, and raise the odds that children would get timely treatment."
In other words, they want to affix a name, some blame, and also a price tag on a broad range of child responses to a custody fight (some may be perfectly justified and some may not) in the hopes of expanding its use in court.
There are downsides to including PAS in the DSM. A minimum of three participants are needed to diagnose PAS therefore it looks less like a mental health disorder than an epidemic.
It assumes that one unbalanced person (the mother) brainwashes or unduly influences, a second unbalanced or suggestable person (the child) into telling lies about a third person (the father).
Simply because a number of parents have experienced the frustration of blocked visitation rights and unreturned phone calls, doesn't mean that this conduct is the result of a medical "syndrome."
Joan S. Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University School of Law, has explained it this way:
"PAS is a label that offers a particular explanation for a breach in relationship between a child and parent, but insofar as that breach could be explained in other, more rational, ways, it is not in itself a medical or psychological diagnosis (a certainty) so much as a particular legal hypothesis."
Read more about PAS here