NEW YORK — Rebuffing an intensive lobbying campaign, a task force of the American Psychiatric Association has decided not to list the disputed concept of parental alienation in the updated edition of its catalog of mental disorders.
The term conveys how a child’s relationship with one estranged parent can be poisoned by the other parent, and there is broad agreement that it sometimes occurs in the context of divorces and child-custody disputes.
However, an acrimonious debate has raged for years about whether the phenomenon should be formally classified as a mental health disorder by the psychiatric association as it updates its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time since 1994.
The new manual won’t be completed until next year, but the decision against classifying parental alienation as a disorder or syndrome has been made.
“The bottom line — it is not a disorder within one individual,” said Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chairman of the task force drafting the manual. “It’s a relationship problem — parent-child or parent-parent. Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”
Dr. Regier and his APA colleagues have come under intense pressure from individuals and groups who believe parental alienation is a serious mental condition that should be formally recognized in the manual. They say this step would lead to fairer outcomes in family courts and enable more children of divorce to get treatment so they could reconcile with an estranged parent.
Among those on the other side of the debate, which has flared since the 1980s, are feminists and advocates for battered women who consider “parental alienation syndrome” to be an unproven and potentially dangerous concept useful to men trying to deflect attention from their abusive behavior.
Some critics of the concept say it’s being promoted by psychologists, consultants and others who could profit if parental alienation had a more formal status in family court disputes.
“At its worst, it lines the pockets of both attorneys and expert witnesses by increasing the number of billable hours in a given case,” wrote Dr. Timothy Houchin, a University of Kentucky psychiatrist, and three colleagues in an article earlier this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
“It creates an entire new level of debate, in which only qualified experts can engage, adding to the already murky waters of divorce testimony,” they wrote, arguing that courts could deal with parent/child estrangement without labeling the child as mentally ill.
Advocates of the concept of parental alienation had been braced for a decision by the APA not to classify it as a syndrome or disorder, but they held out hope that it would be specifically cited in an appendix as an example of a parent-child relational problem.
Dr. Regier, in an email Friday, said this is “very unlikely,” even though the final draft of the manual remains incomplete.
Dr. William Bernet, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, is editor of a 2010 book making the case that parental alienation should be recognized. He contends that about 200,000 children in the U.S. are affected by the condition.
Dr. Bernet’s proposal to the task force defines parental alienation disorder 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.”
Dr. Bernet contends that the task force had made up its mind based on factors beyond the scientific evidence.