Mourning in America
Grief shares many symptoms with depression, but should it be treated in the same way?
Ellen Weinstein / www.ellenweinstein.com
It’s a cardinal human experience: Someone we love dies, and we grieve the loss. This powerful emotion has inspired scores of poets, from Aeschylus to Jay-Z, and serves as the central metaphor of humanity for at least one of the world’s major religions.
In contemporary Western psychology, however, bereavement represents a conundrum. A depressed mood, diminished pleasure in normal activities, disrupted appetite and sleep patterns, thoughts of death—these are the hallmarks of bereavement. And they’re also the measures clinicians use to diagnose treatable depression. This confusion is reopening the debate over what constitutes mental health.
At the heart of the debate, according to Scientific American (June 2011), are proposed changes to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), due in 2013. The DSM is a descriptive document that lists behaviors associated with various disorders. Doctors can compare these lists to the behavior of patients to make an informed—yet by definition, subjective—diagnosis of mental illness.
Because bereavement and clinical depression share overlapping symptoms, the current version of the DSM prohibits prescribing psychiatric medications until two months after the death of a loved one. In the proposed DSM-5, this period is reduced to just two weeks.
Allen Frances, the Duke University School of Medicine psychiatrist who served as lead author of the current rules, calls the change “a disaster.” Symptoms like sadness and loss of appetite are “completely typical of normal grieving, but DSM-5 would instead label you with a mental disorder,” Frances told the Montreal Gazette (April 18, 2011).