Willa Goodfellow’s latest Prozac Monologues piece raises the very important discussion about how bereavement fits (or not) into depression. Ronald Pies, one of the two principal figures behind the proposed DSM-5 “bereavement exclusion” to the depression diagnosis, has left a comment.
The discussion is framed in such a way that the nominal topic - bereavement - unlocks the key to the real issue, namely can any two people actually agree on what depression is all about? What about depression-like behavior?
Some background: The DSM-IV expressly rules out the depression diagnosis if the symptoms are attributable to bereavement for a period of two months or less. The DSM-5, due out in 2013, would drop this exclusion. This has created the mistaken notion that the DSM-5 is proposing to turn bereavement into a psychiatric illness. Allen Frances, who oversaw the DSM-IV, recently told the NY Times that “the revisions will medicalize normality.”
Let’s turn to what the DSM-5 is actually proposing. In the updated depression diagnosis, the symptom checklist would stay the same. In the fine print below, this gets the axe:
“The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement ...”
Willa’s post sees this as the last piece in restoring the complete depression diagnosis. She points out that the DSMs I and II attempted to separate out depressions they saw as situational (exogenous) from those they saw as biological (endogenous). The DSM-III abolished this distinction, essentially viewing depression as a depression, but left in bereavement as an exception. The DSM-IV continued with this.
Willa asks us to view depression as something that happens when life throws too much at us, a point of view backed by some very impressive brain science. Some of us may be genetically resilient, but others (namely, us) prove highly vulnerable, owing to a hyperactive stress response. Says Willa:
What difference does it make whether the one damn thing too many is loss of a job or loss of a loved one? It's still one damn thing too many. And doctors need to take time to figure out what is going on with the person sitting in the office on her last nerve, not say, “There, there. You'll feel better in a couple months.”
As Dr Pies’ says in his comment:
[If] it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's likely to be a duck, until proved otherwise. That is: if a patient shows up in the doctor's office meeting the full symptom and duration criteria for Major Depressive Disorder(MDD); but happens to have lost a loved one within the past two months, we should not withhold the diagnosis of MDD, simply because it occurs in the context of bereavement.
Are we clear on this? Good. Now let’s muddy it up. In an article on my website, Placing Depression in Context, I too observe the old clinical vs situational distinction, with reference to the DSMs I and II, and like Willa I view the distinction as naive and unscientific. But, nevertheless, I also see merit in bringing back some of the old reasoning. As I put it:
The endogenous-exogenous distinction does encourage us to examine where our depression might be coming from. If your marriage is falling apart, for instance, or your situation at work is going badly, it is obviously worth exploring this association. Sort of like investigating whether a person with a pulmonary disorder is working in an asbestos mine. For some crazy reason, the "modern" DSM-III of 1980 and its successors didn't think this was important.
I also looked at normal vs abnormal. In other words, are some of our depressions a normal reaction to an abnormal situation? Aren’t we supposed to feel depressed when we have lost a loved one? Moreover, if life is getting to be too much for us, our depressions may be telling us that we may need to make an immediate course correction. From my article:
This is straight out of evolutionary psychology. Depression has been called the end of denial. The rose-colored glasses come off. Reality takes over. Maybe instead of banging your head against the same wall - again and again and again - you need to cut loose destructive friends, bail out of a bad relationship, rethink that toxic work environment.
Listen to your depression. It may be an unwelcome guest in your brain, but it is definitely telling you something.
But my article also describes a situational depression I found myself in back in 2004, one that very easily could have led to a clinical depression. I simply did not have the luxury of leaving things to chance, not with my vulnerable brain. I immediately changed my routines and found a new project to work on.
In other words, I was feeling depressed. I needed to act right now.
This is precisely Willa’s point. Prior to reading her piece, I was on the side of not changing the bereavement exclusion. Now I’m teetering the other way. But this is because Willa’s piece challenged me to rethink depression, not bereavement. Depression is never what we think we think it is. Something to think about ....