Scientific American covers a coming shake-up in how grief is defined in relation to mental illness as the forthcoming DSM-5 diagnostic manual aims to radically redefine how mourning is treated by mental health professionals.
It’s worth saying that the DSM-5 has yet to be finalised and will not appear until 2013 but the changes to how grief is classified seem quite drastic.
Two proposed changes in the “bible” of psychiatric disorders—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—aim to answer that question when the book’s fifth edition comes out in 2013. One change expected to appear in the DSM-5 reflects a growing consensus in the mental health field; the other has provoked great controversy.
In the less controversial change, the manual would add a new category: Complicated Grief Disorder, also known as traumatic or prolonged grief. The new diagnosis refers to a situation in which many of grief’s common symptoms—such as powerful pining for the deceased, great difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless, and bitterness or anger about the loss—last longer than six months. The controversial change focuses on the other end of the time spectrum: it allows medical treatment for depression in the first few weeks after a death. Currently the DSM specifically bars a bereaved person from being diagnosed with full-blown depression until at least two months have elapsed from the start of mourning.
It is particularly striking that normal grief could be classified as a mental illness under the new proposals as this brings into question how we define mental illness itself.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not one ‘standard way’ of grieving and people’s response vary widely in response to losing a loved one. However, it’s true to say that being sad and withdrawn is certainly common enough for it to count as a normal reaction to loss.
This brings to mind psychologist Richard Bentall’s tongue-in-cheek proposal to classify happiness as a mental disorder due to the fact that it is “statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system”.
Perhaps we can also look forward to simmering anger, dashed hopes and unrequited love disorders for the DSM-6?
Link to SciAm article ‘Shades of Grief’.