Is Grief Mental Illness?

Of course not! Grief is not mental illness — it is an inevitable part of the circle of life. Grief is as much a mental illness as puberty.

In 1952, the first “bible of psychiatry” didn’t even refer to grief, considering it a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was just released by the American Psychiatric Association. It has been changed so that someone can now be diagnosed with a Major Depressive Disorder two weeks after the death of a child, parent, spouse, or loved one.

The problem here is that normal reactions of grief can be inaccurately labeled a mental illness. If you are not over your loss after few months, a diagnosis may label you as having “prolonged grief disorder.” This is the biggest bunch of hogwash I’ve ever heard.

You have to ask, who benefits from pathologizing grief? Big companies pushing drugs. Feeling sad? Pop a pill. Don’t dig deep to ask big questions such as: Why am I here? Who am I? What do I stand for? What is the meaning of my life? Don’t take constructive action to build a life of meaning and purpose. Zone out on anti-depressants.

Grief is not a mental illness. It is a normal and natural and healthy reaction to a major loss.

How Long Does Grief Take?

Dr. Edward Diener is recognized as a leading authority on happiness. He’s a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois and has done extensive research on adaptation. He found two events that knock people lastingly below their happiness set point: loss of a spouse and loss of a job. It takes a widow five to eight years to regain her previous sense of well-being.

Diener summarizes how life satisfaction changes over time for widows and widowers, “In the year the spouse passes away, there is a precipitous drop in happiness. This is, of course, understandable. We invest so much in our beloved partners that the loss can be traumatic and overwhelming. As with divorce and unemployment, the process of adaptation begins as the bereaved begin the slow process of learning to live without their spouses…. Even five years later, most spouses have not completely returned to their former levels of life satisfaction. In fact, on average, it takes eight years to regain those old feelings of well-being!”

Diener’s research findings are based on thousands of people over two decades. If people, on average, take eight years to regain their feelings of well-being after the death of a spouse, it is absurd to label grief that takes more than a few months a “mental disorder.”

I find this deeply disrespectful of the honorable work of grieving. It is counterproductive if not downright harmful.

People can best be supported to find healthy ways to honor and mourn their loss. Drugs are not the answer.  It is important to have close relationships and social support in order to work through grief. When we face our suffering head-on rather than zone out with drugs, we can grow beyond grief.


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