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Being Human: Grief is Not a Mental Illness

Last year, Dr. Marcia Angell began a two-part series in the New York Review of Books by writing, “It seems that Americans are in the midst of a raging epidemic of mental illness, at least as judged by the increase in the numbers being treated for it.”

Her use of the word “seems” told readers that Angell, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, was skeptical.

That’s putting it mildly. Obviously, Angell doesn’t doubt the reality of mental illness or the toll it takes on people. Her concern is that it is becoming “harder and harder to be normal.”

Case in point: A National Institutes of Mental Health survey of random adults found that 46 percent met the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for mental illness at some point in their lives.

Angell calls this finding “astonishing” and asks the obvious question: “Why?”

One answer is the ever-expanding definition of “mental illness.” As Angell pointed out, back in 1968, within most Americans’ lifetimes, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the so-called “bible of psychiatry,” contained 185 diagnoses.

By 1980, it had risen to 265. The 2000 edition reported 365 and the next edition, to be published in 2013, will undoubtedly have more. Among possible new entries is something called “grieving disorder.”

When you think about it, the idea of grief as mental illness is absurd. As the British medical journal The Lancet put it, “Grief is not an illness; it is more usefully thought of as part of being human and a normal response to the death of a loved one.”

Grief is our response to loss and to reminders of our finitude. We grieve because on this side of eternity nothing good lasts forever.

While neither grief nor loss is good in and of themselves, the experience of them can be beneficial: It can help you gain perspective and can make us more resilient. I’m not denying that real suffering is involved, but even if we just muddle through the experience we can become stronger. I’ve given to many friends who are grieving a wonderful book by C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Of course, there are people for whom grief turns into a debilitating downward spiral. They need and should get professional help. Some people may need medication, but The Lancet is right when it says that, in most cases, “doctors would do better to offer time, compassion, remembrance and empathy” instead of pills.

The journal is also correct when it says that classifying grief as mental illness is part of a larger pattern of “medicalizing” everyday experiences. Instead of being shy, people suffer from “social phobia;” people who were once called “jerks” are now described as having “antisocial personality disorder.”

This is, as Angell tells us, partly driven by our infatuation with pharmaceuticals. A psychiatric label means that there may be a pill that will make it better, and TV ads regularly promote it.

The real problem is that we increasingly see ourselves as biochemical machines with brains instead of souls. What we think and feel is the product of brain chemistry and correcting what ails us is a matter of tinkering with that chemistry.

This worldview has no place for compassion, remembrance, or empathy because, ultimately, it has no room for being human, especially a normal one.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication dateMarch 14, 2012

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