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Sherlock Holmes and child psychopathology assessment approaches: the case of the false-positive.

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Child and Adolescent Research, National Institute of Mental Health, Rockville, MD 20857, USA.



To explore the relative value of various methods of assessing childhood psychopathology, the authors compared 4 groups of children: those who met criteria for one or more DSM diagnoses and scored high on parent symptom checklists, those who met psychopathology criteria on either one of these two assessment approaches alone, and those who met no psychopathology assessment criterion.


Parents of 201 children completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), after which children and parents were administered the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (version 2.1). Children and parents also completed other survey measures and symptom report inventories. The 4 groups of children were compared against "external validators" to examine the merits of "false-positive" and "false-negative" cases.


True-positive cases (those that met DSM criteria and scored high on the CBCL) differed significantly from the true-negative cases on most external validators. "False-positive" and "false-negative" cases had intermediate levels of most risk factors and external validators. "False-positive" cases were not normal per se because they scored significantly above the true-negative group on a number of risk factors and external validators. A similar but less marked pattern was noted for "false-negatives."


Findings call into question whether cases with high symptom checklist scores despite no formal diagnoses should be considered "false-positive." Pending the availability of robust markers for mental illness, researchers and clinicians must resist the tendency to reify diagnostic categories or to engage in arcane debates about the superiority of one assessment approach over another.

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