Mental health question but no shrink? This q-and-a book may help


“The Handy Psychology Answer Book”

by Lisa J. Cohen, $21.95, Visible Ink Press, 544 pages

Nobody thinks psychology and psychiatry are simple, which is why it was useful for the American Psychiatric Association to publish its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952. But if you don’t even know what the DSM is, you could go to “The Handy Psychology Answer Book” and read the simple, useful explanation by Lisa J. Cohen, a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychiatry.

The DSM, she writes in the recently published second edition (revised and expanded) of her 2011 reference book, “provides a standardized method to diagnose mental illness … a virtual bible for the mental health field,” and as such it has a “wide and powerful impact” not only on clinical treatment but also on public policy, the criminal justice system “and even popular culture.” Check. Then there are several other entries relating to the DSM and other issues of diagnosis.

That’s a good example of the information available in the 500-page Answer Book, which, as its name implies, is pretty much all in question-and-answer form. A few others:

Q. How long does it take people to recover from a divorce?

A. “For most people, life returns to some sort of normalcy within a few years.” But disputes over division of property and one spouse’s resentment over being left can prolong hostile feelings for more than a decade.

Q. Has average happiness changed over time?

A. In many parts of the world it has changed quite dramatically, usually in connection with changes in economics or the level of violence. “In the United States, however, there has been essentially no change in the reported levels of happiness over the past 60 years.” (There’s a whole set of Q’s on how psychologists measure happiness.)

More queries: What is behavioral economics? What contributes to a “good death”? What is the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists? Who is Dr. Laura? How common is ADHD? How is Asperger’s syndrome different from autism? What is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)? (Follow-up question: Do politicians score higher on the NPI than people in other professions? Yes.)

Some of the Q&A structure is a little forced. Nobody except a final-exam writer, for example, is likely to ask, “How did Kenneth and Mamie Clark use dolls to demonstrate the effect of racism on African-American children’s self-concept?” But the answer, describing 1940s research that found that black children preferred white dolls, is a concise, compelling anecdote about the devastating impact of prejudice.

The book is sensibly organized, but there’s also an exhaustive index, making it easy to look into whatever comes to mind. What is a synapse, anyway?