DSM-5 Hysteria: When Does Normal Grief Become Neurotic Bereavement?
DSM-IV-TR draws a distinction between natural or "normal" and pathological bereavement. As it should. When does a "normal grief reaction" become a debilitating, prolonged and potentially life-threatening mental disorder? Beareavement (V62.82) is a category that "can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a reaction to the death of a loved one. As part of their reaction to the loss, some grieving individuals present with symptoms characteristic of a Major Depressive Episode (e.g., feelings of sadness and associated symptoms such as insomnia, poor appetite, and weight loss.) The bereaved individual typically regards the depressed mood as 'normal,' although the person may seek professional help for relief of associated symptoms. . . . The duration and expression of 'normal' bereavement vary considerably among different cultural groups. The diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder is generally not given unless the symptoms are still present 2 months after the loss [my emphasis]. However, the presence of certain symptoms that are not characteristic of a 'normal' grief reaction may be helpful in differentiating bereavement from a Major Depressive Episode. These include 1) guilt about things other than actions taken or not taken by the survivor at the time of the death; 2) thoughts of death other than the survivor feeling that he or she would be better off dead or should have died with the deceased person; 3) morbid preoccupation with worthlessness; 4) marked psychomotor retardation; 5) prolonged and marked functional impairment; 6) hallucinatory experiences other than thinking that he or she hears the voice of, or transiently sees the image of, the deceased person." (DSM-IV-TR, pp. 740-741)
Note that the clinician is encouraged to consider cultural differences in duration of mourning before diagnosing. (The DSM-IV-TR even allows for the experience of hearing or seeing the deceased person without necessarily pathologizing such phenomena!) And that these symptoms of grief do not automatically demand the formal diagnosis of a mental disorder. This is reasonable, and not necessarily unusual or abnormal, especially during the first two months (a typical time-frame but still admittedly somewhat arbitrary) following the loss. However, when someone's bereavement symptoms become severe, debilitating and persistent, meeting diagnostic criteria for Adjustment Disorder (see below) or Major Depressive Disorder (with or without psychotic symptoms), it has crossed the threshold from V code (e.g., uncomplicated or simple Bereavement) to a diagnosable and potentially dangerous state of mind. It has become a mental disorder.
One danger in such cases is the very real risk of suicidality, which increases with clinically depressed individuals in general, and especially in someone who has recently lost a significant other. Another is the risk that the person is sliding slowly down a slippery slope into a full-blown major depressive episode. Once this happens, it can make it much more difficult for the patient to pull out of their depressive tailspin. (An untreated major depressive episode typically lasts at least 4 months, regardless of age at onset.) Moreover, once a Major Depressive Disorder develops, the person is at risk for repeated future major depressive episodes, since we know that major depression tends to be recurrent in many cases. ( More than 60% of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder, Single Episode, will likely have a second episode, and those with two or more previously have a 70--90% chance of future episodes.) And, when profound, major depression can engender psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, which, in turn, make treatment more intrusive and difficult, and prognosis much poorer. So the treating clinician needs to be mindful of these risks, and watchful of when he or she may need to intervene so as to prevent potentially catastrophic deterioration of the patient's precarious mental state. This is one excellent example of what I call "clinical wisdom." (See my prior posts.)
Currently, DSM-IV-TR excludes grief from the diagnoses of both Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood (when normal bereavement is in process) and Major Depressive Disorder (prior to two months of persistent symptoms), the latter being the more serious and debilitating of the two. In Major Depressive Disorder, it specifies that "after the loss of a loved one, even if depressive symptoms are of sufficient duration and number to meet criteria for a Major Depressive Episode, they should be attributed to Bereavement rather than to a Major Depressive Episode, unless they persist for more than 2 months or include marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation." (p. 355) These exclusions were presumably designed to prevent clinicians from pathologizing normal grief reactions. Which makes sense. But what happens when it becomes confusing for clinicans to differentiate "normal" bereavement, sadness, grief or mourning from a major depressive episode or Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood? In such cases, what one considers a "normal" grief reaction could, especially in someone who has suffered from depression before, be mistaken for a much more serious and perilous mental health problem. People who have experienced traumatic losses during childhood of parents, siblings, close family members or friends, are at greater risk to react to later losses by falling into clinical depression as opposed to the "normal" bereavement experienced by those who have not suffered such prior traumatic experiences. As are those who may be genetically and temperamentally predisposed toward depression (Major Depressive Disorder is 1.5 to 3 times more common among first-degree biological relatives of MDD sufferers than among the general population).