Most people have experienced grief at some point in their lives, but it does not always play out the same way. You’ve probably heard that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. And while that is true, it’s also important to recognize when grief becomes an overwhelming force in our lives. Through the collective trauma and widespread losses of the COVID era, grief is a feeling that has resonated throughout communities around the world. That makes the timing of a recent decision by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to add a new diagnosis—prolonged grief disorder—to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) that much more impactful.

Here we’ll take a closer look at what exactly prolonged grief disorder is and why it is important for mental health providers to have this diagnosis available.

What does it mean to have prolonged grief disorder included in the DSM-5?

The DSM-5 is a resource for healthcare professionals that defines mental health conditions and provides clear terminology and treatment guidelines for those conditions. So, by including prolonged grief disorder in the DSM-5, the APA is providing a pathway for mental health providers to diagnose and treat individuals for a condition they’re already struggling with. Struggles with prolonged grief are nothing new. However, they are likely to be more common following the shared trauma of the COVID pandemic.

What are the symptoms of prolonged grief disorder?

What exactly distinguishes “normal” grieving from prolonged grief disorder? The most important factor is time. Grief typically resolves within about one year following a loss. A diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder requires an extended period of grieving, which may also involve an intense yearning or preoccupation for a lost loved one. For adults, prolonged grief disorder may be diagnosed within 12 months of a loss, while children may receive a diagnosis within 6 months. Along with an extended period of grief, this disorder may be marked by:

  • Difficulty getting back to daily activities
  • Emotional numbness or intense emotional pain
  • Difficulty finding meaning in life
  • Extreme loneliness and detachment
  • Avoiding any reminders of the deceased’s passing

Prolonged grief disorder is most likely to be seen in those who have lost a romantic partner or a child. Sudden, unexplained, or violent death of a loved one can also raise the risk of prolonged grief disorder.

Why are experts split on this new type of diagnosis?

Creating an official diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder has been a controversial decision that’s divided medical professionals. While some view the diagnosis as a means of providing treatment for intense, disruptive, long-term grief, others feel that identifying grief as a disorder does not consider that grieving is not a linear process, and it does not look the same for everyone. Additionally, it is important to remember that grief in itself is not a pathological disorder. Thus, care should be taken to distinguish the larger idea of grieving from the mental health disorder.

How is prolonged grief disorder treated?

Although the DSM-5 classification of prolonged grief disorder is new, research surrounding prolonged grief is not. Studies have shown that the same methodologies and medications normally prescribed for grief do not work for prolonged grief disorder. Instead, treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and grief and trauma intervention is recommended. Complicated grief treatment is also among treatment guidelines. This is a semi-structured form of therapy designed around helping patients envision a future that once again has meaning.

If you or a loved one is showing the signs of prolonged grief disorder, you may need help outside of your normal support system of friends and family. MeMD can offer psychiatric and psychological care from licensed providers, which you can access from the comfort of home. Request a visit with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist and get help in as few as 24 hours.

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