People suffering from long-term grief after the death of a loved one will soon have their condition officially labelled a mental disorder.
Many psychiatrists have argued grief should not be labelled as a mental condition because it is a natural phenomenon which everyone experiences.
However, the next edition of the industry’s so-called bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, will include a new diagnosis for people still struggling to cope a year or more after a loved one dies.
The condition will be officially known as adjustment disorder related to bereavement.
University of NSW psychology professor Richard Bryant, who is on the manual’s review committee, said 10 to 15 per cent of people have a persistent grief reaction which can last up to 40 years.
Those most likely to mourn for more than a year include people who lose a child or suffer a loss through suicide and unexpected death such as a road accident or homicide.
“People have said it’s not right to medicinise grief which has personal and culturally specific responses and psychiatry is butting in where it doesn’t belong,” Prof Bryant told AAP.
“The alternative view is that all of the above is true but we know after a traumatic event a proportion of people will have negative psychological reactions that will affect them.
“Having a diagnosis means we can identify people through formal screening programs and facilitate people to getting directed to appropriate treatments like cognitive behaviour therapy.”
Prof Bryant, who is also the director of the traumatic stress clinic at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, said people with long-term grief tended to be “stuck in the past” and unable to move on with their lives.
“For most people after six months the pain starts to ease and for those who it doesn’t they will have a long-term problem,” he said.
“They are going to be more likely to abuse substances, have mental health problems, heart conditions and engage in poor health behaviour like smoking and drinking.”
Often people who are struggling to cope with grief are prescribed anti-depressants and offered counselling.
But Prof Bryant said these were unlikely to be solutions for people with long-term grief.
“The reaction is about yearning and missing and longing and is distinct from anxiety and depression and is not responsive to treatment for depression,” he said.
“So, medication is not going to help it.
“It is psychotherapy programs which are different from the normal grief work programs and counsellors that are best.”
Prof Bryant is due to discuss the new diagnosis for long-term grief at a forum hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health on August 12.
The next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is due to be published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013.