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Is caffeine withdrawal really a mental illness?

I had a hard time believing that caffeine withdrawal is now classified as a mental illness in the new DSM-5 manual of psychiatric diagnoses, despite what news reports have proclaimed. But it is indeed listed there under the heading “Caffeine-Related Disorders.”

The previous DSM manual had included “caffeine intoxication,” which describes the jitteriness, nervousness, insomnia, muscle twitching, and rapid heartbeat that can occur if we down a Starbucks double or triple latte or a can of Monster Energy. But our bodies and brains may become dependent on the caffeine leading to withdrawal symptoms — headaches, fatigue, trouble focusing, mild depression — when we go without our daily java or energy shot.

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Is this withdrawal really a mental disorder? I posed this question to psychologist Alan Budney of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, who served on the DSM committee.

“The caffeine consideration isn’t really any different from alcohol, which is a legal substance but can also be misused and produce a clinically significant [transitory] withdrawal syndrome,” said Budney, who served on the DSM committee. “All mental disorders are not long-term.” He also emphasized that the diagnosis should only be made when symptoms cause “clinically significant distress” or impair how a person functions in their work or home environments.

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