Grief, A Disease?

Apparently, the DSM is considering making grief a disease. I have mixed feelings about this: One the one hand, I think that grief is part of the normal human condition, in reaction to loss. On the other hand, many might benefit from having professional treatment to deal with their grief, and grief that is un-dealt with can have painful and long-term consequences.

I am currently in the middle of reading Foucault’s “On Madness and Civilization”, which I was introduced to by Dr. Anne Eakin Moss of Johns Hopkins University. Foucault posits that madness has symbolized many things throughout Western civilization – including freedom, wisdom, and the irrationality, as well as sensual desires, within each person. Madmen went from people to be sent away from the city, people who wonder on ships in pop culture tales and paintings, to people to be locked away. Soon, madness acquired the language of pathology – one was no longer merely crazy, one was “sick”, quarantined almost like the ancient leper, as if this mental malady might be catching. Over the years, madhouses were used to lock away people who society wished to exile from its midst, whether or not they conformed to what we think of today as “crazy” – essentially, people who subverted the social norms beyond a certain measure, especially in the realms of sex or nudity, were locked away. Of course, this leads into the larger issue of how much psychology both is created by and creates social norms: The only thing that separates a schizophrenic from a revolutionary is that society does not believe the skizophrenic’s visions, where it does believe those of the revolutionary.* I understand this is dealt with by R.D. Laing, whose works I have not read.

My fear with pathologizing grief, is that the minute we label something an illness, we imply its not “normal”: Making grief part of the DSM might serve to make the grieving person feel wrong for grieving, or even to socially stigmatize them. It’s nice to say that in today’s world, illness is not a stigma, but in fact, while we are getting better, the reality is that yes, illness is considered a stigma, even though the stigma is lessening. It’s why people don’t pipe up with  “I’m on prozac”, or “I have a heart condition” at costume parties.

Furthermore, as the article points out, this could lead to over-medication. My bigger concern though, is that when you say something is an illness, you deprive them of agency: This is a pathology, beyond my control. There are times when this is true, and times when it is the correct approach. Clinical depression would be one such example – especially since studies have shown that for some people, feeling guilty about being depressed can worsen their depression. Knowing ‘It’s not my fault” can be a huge relief that helps them overcome it. Even with grieving, while it might not be impossible not to grieve, not grieving would be extremely, extremely, hard, so perhaps, in that sense, the ability not t grieve is almost out of a person’s grasp.

Still, I see this as part of a general encroachment on human agency by modern society, that particularly bothers me. I am waiting for the day someone tries to prove they were psychologically predisposed to murder, or genetically predisposed to anger, and thus, innocent of the crime. If you have anger management problems diagnosed by a clinician, does that deprive you of responsibility for actions done while in rage? Unfortunately, there is a camp in society that believes the answer is yes. There is a fine line between accepting that there are psychological conditions that might indeed, deprive a person of responsibility for their actions – a schizophrenic hallucination is an example – and between recognizing that in general, people are responsible for their actions, even if it means overcoming psychological issues, because how many people don’t have issues? Of course, there is a huge difference between an “issue” – such as, fear of commitment – and a “condition” – such as manic depressive disorder – especially regarding a person’s ability to overcome it and the responsibility question

That is part of why I am not sure how much the language of “curing” should be used – it defines mental illness as something to be excised from someone, like a tumor. This metaphor might work for certain types of people and certain types of mental illness. However, I think a lot more should be spoken about not curing, but rather managing or living with mentally illness – about leading a healthy, productive life despite it. This negates patient feelings of “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not cured yet?”, and leaves rooms for conditions that tend to be more long-term or reappear when set off by triggers – such as depression or manic depressive disorder.

I also think that instead of putting the burden of the cure on the doctor and patient, we should be training our society for how to interact with those who are both mentally and physically ill. I am not just talking about tolerance, but rather, of making a real place for such people within our society. Even where there is good will, people are often unsure how to react to knowledge that someone has a condition, how to help or what (not) to say.

This is all by way of saying, that I am all for urging clinicians to focus on and help others deal with grief, and for grievers to seek treatment to help them deal with the process. I am also all for training society to be more sensitive to grievers. I am just not sure whether or not pathologizing grief is the best method of doing so.

* I used that sentence to prove a point, but in reality, schizophrenia is much more complex and does not always involve hallucinations – there are different types of schizophrenia. It is a serious disease that is hard to cure, and I am not trying to mock anyone’s pain. I found this website that helps find support groups:

However, I can not take responsibility for its content. Also, they list treatment centers – just know that historically, many extreme measures have been taken to treat schizophrenia, often with limited success, so please, please, do not take any drastic action unless you have had a serious consultation with a medical professional.


One Response to “Grief, A Disease?”

  1. Schizophrenia – a very serious mental illness | My Blog Says:

    […] Schizophrenia SymptomsSuicide; Risk Factors.Mental Health: Schizophrenia And The symptoms (I)Grief, A Disease .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

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