Marc A. Grimmett, Adria S. Dunbar, Teshanee Williams, Cory Clark, Brittany Prioleau, Jen S. Miller
Research studies indicate that the number of African Americans diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is disproportionately higher than other demographic groups (Feisthamel & Schwartz, 2009; Schwartz & Feisthamel, 2009). One contributing factor for this disproportionality is that White American clients presenting with the same disruptive behavioral symptoms as African American clients tend to be diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Feisthamel and Schwartz (2009) concluded, “counselors perceive attention deficit, oppositional, and conduct-related problems as significantly more common among clients of color” (p. 51), and racial diagnostic bias may influence the assessment process. Racial biases in clinical decision making are explained in a conceptual pathway developed by Feisthamel and Schwartz (2007).
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The purpose of this study was to understand the diagnostic processes and implications associated with ODD. Findings suggest that a diagnosis of ODD can result from more factors than client symptoms fitting the diagnostic criteria. While none of the research or interview questions asked specifically about the role of insurance or managed care, every participant indicated that third party billing influenced the diagnostic process.
Specifically, the mental health counselors interviewed were keenly aware of the necessity of making a diagnosis for insurance reimbursement. It appeared that ODD is considered a reliable diagnosis for billing purposes; however, diagnostic necessity may also create an ethical dilemma for mental health counselors who want to provide quality care and need to earn a living. The possibility of racial diagnostic bias remains, even with insurance requirements, when African Americans are more likely to receive a diagnosis of ODD, while White Americans presenting with similar symptoms receive a diagnosis of adjustment disorder (Feisthamel & Schwartz, 2009; Schwartz & Feisthamel, 2009).
Professional ethical standards and best practices warrant full consideration of a diagnosis, including the purpose served and implications, as related to the health and well-being of clients (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014). Even when a diagnosis is not warranted or conflicts with theoretical, philosophical or therapeutic approaches, mental health providers serving clients who do not pay cash for services are forced to accommodate diagnostic requirements. The use of a diagnosis as a therapeutic tool, designed to act in concert with others, has also come to serve as the gateway to mental health care services.
In the case of African American male clients, an ODD diagnosis can be particularly stigmatizing with immediate and long-term implications for marginalization and tracking (Cossu et al., 2015). Educational, judicial and incarceration data clearly demonstrate that African American males are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school compared to their peers (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014); receive harsher sentences in judicial systems for the same offenses as other defendants (Ghandnoosh, 2014; Rehavi & Starr, 2012); and are more likely to be stopped, searched, assaulted and killed by police officers than other community members (Gabrielson, Jones, & Sagara, 2014; Weatherspoon, 2004). Since ODD is categorized as a disruptive behavior disorder, it may be considered, intentionally or unintentionally, a justification, rationale or explanation for these disparate outcomes. When the diagnosis of a mental disorder is used for purposes other than helping the client, it opens the door to unintended and problematic consequences. (REALLY????)
The assessment process is critical to making an accurate diagnosis and should not be limited to the most readily available, convenient or confirmatory information. With ODD, alternative, viable explanations for client symptoms have to be considered that may include family history and dynamics, personal trauma and social–cultural context. Guindon and Sobhany (2001) noted, “often there are discrepancies between the counselor’s perception of their clients’ mental health problems and those of the clients themselves” (p. 277). Again, there may be a tendency to diagnose African American males with perceived behavioral problems with ODD without full consideration of historical and contextual variables that may better explain mood and behavior and warrant a different diagnosis altogether (Hays et al., 2010).
Mental health counselors also have certain biases, within and beyond personal awareness, that create diagnostic tendencies, which may undermine the diagnostic process and invalidate the results of the assessment. Assessment practices and structures appear to accommodate intrinsic and individual information, more so than extrinsic and systemic variables (Hays et al., 2010). For these reasons, the gathering of client information for diagnostic purposes must be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, notwithstanding measures to limit mental health counselor bias, such as supervision and consultation.
The ACA Code of Ethics outlines the need for even the most experienced counselors to seek supervision and consultation when necessary (ACA, 2014). One potential blind spot for many counselors experiencing bias toward African American male clients is not realizing the need for supervision and consultation when it arises. Understanding that ODD diagnoses within the African American male community have been shown to be inflated is a first step toward decreasing counselor bias. Second, recognizing the subjective nature of making an ODD diagnosis, especially since many of the behaviors and emotions listed as diagnostic criteria also “occur commonly in normally developing children and adolescents” (APA, 2013, p. 15) is another critical aspect of ensuring accurate diagnoses are made.
Counselors are trained from a multimodal approach to diagnosis based on Western medicine; therefore, diagnosing clients is a culturally-based practice (Sue & Sue, 2015). Furthermore, most research in the area of mental and behavioral health has, in large part, not included people of color (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Cultural discrepancies also are evident in the demographic characteristics represented within the counseling profession. Approximately 71% of counselors in the United States are women, and only 18.4% of counselors identify as Black or African American (U.S. Department of Labor, 2015); therefore, most African American male clients will likely have different cultural backgrounds from their counselors. These factors create a need for consultation and supervision to ensure that the personal and professional worldviews of counselors are not inhibiting accurate diagnosis and treatment planning for African American male clients.
In addition to supervision, another measure to limit counselor bias would be to practice reflective cultural auditing, a 13-step process for walking counselors through how culture may impact their work with clients from initial meeting through termination and follow-up. This process allows counselors to reflect on what may seem like client resistance, but may instead be a “disruption in the working alliance” (Collins, Arthur, & Wong-Wylie, 2010, p. 345) based on cultural differences. In addition to utilizing reflective audits of individual cases, it also can be helpful for counselors to review case files regularly, taking into account race and ethnic background, along with symptoms and reported diagnosis. Finding diagnostic patterns within one’s own practice can help counselors reflect on their clinical work and identify areas of bias that may exist.
I would add that there are multiple cultures within the white population, and psychologists must recognize bias in their social “judgments” based on class prejudice.
Most insurance companies require counselors to diagnose clients with a mental disorder in order to obtain payment for mental health services (Kautz, Mauch, & Smith, 2008). Many insurance companies require that a diagnosis be made during the first few counseling sessions, sometimes within the very first counseling session. All participants described the role and influence of insurance companies and managed care in the diagnostic process. One participant expressed, “the diagnosis is necessary to get paid, so you have to find something. You are not looking objectively. You are just giving them a diagnosis.” The participant continued:
We see this proportion of diagnoses [with African American males] because the insurance in managed care world drives agencies like this one and drives providers to say that an [African American] child is diagnosed a particular way . . . There is this incentive to diagnose and to diagnose in a short period of time.
Findings suggested that the assessment time allotted by insurance companies to diagnose a mental disorder undermines the diagnostic process and invalidates the diagnosis. One participant emphasized, “the client is not going to open up to you within that time frame; this is the first time the child is ever seeing you. Those types of things progress over time.” Further structural and systemic assessment problems also were identified by another participant:
You’re allowed to do one assessment per year for the client . . . The assessor would take the previous assessment, use a majority of that information, and then just ask what has changed between then and now . . . there [are] a lot of questions that the previous assessment didn’t answer or didn’t really look into. So that piece gets missed.
WOW! Some honesty at last from people within the “helping, caring fixing” industry.