The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) features a new diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder—used for those who, a year after a loss, still remain incapacitated by it. This addition follows more than a decade of debate. Supporters argued that the addition enables clinicians to provide much-needed help to those afflicted by what one might simply consider a too much of grief, whereas opponents insisted that one mustn’t unduly pathologize grief and reject an increasingly medicalized approach to a condition that they considered part of a normal process of dealing with loss—a process which in some simply takes longer than in others.
By including a condition in a professional classification system, we collectively recognize it as real. Recognizing hitherto unnamed conditions can help remove certain kinds of disadvantages. Miranda Fricker emphasizes this in her discussion of what she dubs hermeneutic injustice: a specific sort of epistemic injustice that affects persons in their capacity as knowers1. Creating terms like ‘post-natal depression’ and ‘sexual harassment’, Fricker argues, filled lacunae in the collectively available hermeneutic resources that existed where names for distinctive kinds of social experience should have been. The absence of such resources, Fricker holds, put those who suffered from such experiences at an epistemic disadvantage: they lacked the words to talk about them, understand them, and articulate how they were wronged. Simultaneously, such absences prevented wrong-doers from properly understanding and facing the harm they were inflicting—e.g. those who would ridicule or scold mothers of newborns for not being happier or those who would either actively engage in sexual harassment or (knowingly or not) support the societal structures that helped make it seem as if it was something women just had to put up with.
For Fricker, the hermeneutical disadvantage faced by those who suffer from an as-of-yet ill-understood and largely undiagnosed medical condition is not an epistemic injustice. Those so disadvantaged are not excluded from full participation in hermeneutic practices, or at least not through mechanisms of social coercion that arise due to some structural identity prejudice. They are not, in other words, hermeneutically marginalized, which for Fricker, is an essential characteristic of epistemic injustice. Instead, their situation is simply one of “circumstantial epistemic bad luck”2. Still, Fricker, too, can agree that providing labels for ill-understood conditions is valuable. Naming a condition helps raise awareness of it, makes it discursively available and, thus, a possible object of knowledge and understanding. This, in turn, can enable those afflicted by it to understand their experience and give those who care about them another way of nudging them into seeking help.
Surely, if adding prolonged grief disorder to the DSM-5 were merely a matter of recognizing the condition and of facilitating assistance, nobody should have any qualms with it. However, the addition also turns intense grief into a mental disorder—something for whose treatment insurance companies can be billed. With this, significant forces of interest enter the scene. The DSM-5, recall, is mainly consulted by psychiatrists. In contrast to talk-therapists like psychotherapists or psychoanalysts, psychiatrists constitute a highly medicalized profession, in which symptoms—clustered together as syndromes or disorders—are frequently taken to require drugs to treat them. Adding prolonged grief disorder thus heralds the advent of research into various drug-based grief therapies. Ellen Barry of the New York Times confirms this: “naltrexone, a drug used to help treat addiction,” she reports, “is currently in clinical trials as a form of grief therapy”, and we are likely to see a “competition for approval of medicines by the Food and Drug Administration.”3
Adding diagnoses to the DSM-5 creates financial incentives for players in the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs advertised as providing relief to those so diagnosed. Surely, for various conditions, providing drug-induced relief from severe symptoms is useful, even necessary to enable patients to return to normal levels of functioning. But while drugs may help suppress feelings associated with intense grief, they cannot remove the grief. If all mental illnesses were brain diseases, they might be removed by adhering to some drug regimen or other. Note, however, that ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor that carries the implicit suggestion that just like physical illnesses, mental afflictions, too, are curable by providing the right kind of physical treatment. Unsurprisingly, this metaphor is embraced by those who stand to massively benefit from what profits they may reap from selling a plethora of drugs to those diagnosed with any of what seems like an ever-increasing number of mental disorders. But metaphors have limits. Lou Marinoff, a proponent of philosophical counselling, puts the point aptly:
Those who are dysfunctional by reason of physical illness entirely beyond their control—such as manic-depressives—are helped by medication. For handling that kind of problem, make your first stop a psychiatrist’s office. But if your problem is about identity or values or ethics, your worst bet is to let someone reify a mental illness and write a prescription. There is no pill that will make you find yourself, achieve your goals, or do the right thing.
Much more could be said about the differences between psychotherapy, psychiatry, and the newcomer in the field: philosophical counselling. Interested readers may benefit from consulting Marinoff’s work. Written in a provocative, sometimes alarmist style, it is both entertaining and—if taken with a substantial grain of salt—frequently insightful. My own view is this: from Fricker’s work, we can extract reasons to side with the proponents of adding prolonged grief disorder to the DSM-5. Creating hermeneutic resources that allow us to help raise awareness, promote understanding, and facilitate assistance is commendable. If the addition achieves that, we should welcome it. And yet, one may indeed worry that practitioners are too eager to move from the recognition of a mental condition to the implementation of therapeutic interventions that are based on the assumption that such afflictions must be understood on the model of physical disease. The issue is not whether certain mental conditions are real—they are. It is how we conceptualize them and what we think treating them requires.
No doubt, grief manifests physically. It is, however, not primarily a physical condition—let alone a brain disease. Grief is a distinctive mental condition. Apart from bouts of sadness, its symptoms typically include the loss of orientation or a sense of meaning. To overcome grief, we must come to terms with who we are or can be without the loved one’s physical presence in our life. We may need to reinvent ourselves, figure out how to be better again and whence to derive a new purpose. What is at stake is our sense of identity, our self-worth, and, ultimately, our happiness. Thinking that such issues are best addressed by popping pills puts us on a dangerous path, leading perhaps towards the kind of dystopian society Aldous Huxley imagined in his 1932 novel Brave New World. It does little to help us understand, let alone address, the moral and broader philosophical issues that trouble the bereaved and that lie at the root not just of prolonged grief but, arguably, of many so-called mental illnesses.
1 For this and the following, cf. Fricker 2007, chapter 7.
2 Fricker 2007: 152
3 Barry 2022
Barry, E. (2022). “How Long Should It Take to Grieve? Psychiatry Has Come Up With an Answer.” The New York Times, 03/18/2022, URL = https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/health/prolonged-grief-
disorder.html [last access: 04/05/2022])
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice. Power & the Ethics of knowing. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. New York: Harper Brothers.
Marinoff, L. (1999). Plato, not Prozac! New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Professor Raja Rosenhagen is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Head of Department, and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh and has a broad range of philosophical interests (see here). He wrote this article a) because he was invited to do so and b) because he is currently nurturing a growing interest in philosophical counselling.
Picture Credits: CBD Oracle
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