Part 2 is now out here.
It’s been recognized since forever that clinical depression is similar, in many ways, to the experience of grief. Freud wrote about it in 1917, and it was an ancient idea even then. So psychiatrists have long thought that symptoms, which would indicate depression in someone who wasn’t bereaved, can be quite normal and healthy as a response to the loss of a loved one. You can’t go around diagnosing depression purely on the basis of the symptoms, out of context.
On the other hand, sometimes grief does become pathological – it triggers depression. So equally, you can’t just decide to never diagnose depression in the bereaved. How do you tell the difference between “normal” and “complicated” grief, though? This is where opinions differ.
Jerome Wakefield (of Loss of Sadness fame) and colleagues compared two methods. They looked at the NCS survey of the American population, and took everyone who’d suffered a possible depressive episode following bereavement. There were 156 of these.
They then divided these cases into “complicated” grief (depression) vs “uncomplicated” grief, first using the older DSM-III-R criteria, and then with the current DSM-IV ones. Both have a bereavement exclusion for the depression criteria – don’t diagnose depression if it’s bereavement – but they also have criteria for complicated grief which is depression, exclusions to the exclusion.
The systems differ in two major ways: the older criteria were ambiguous but at the time, they were generally interpreted to mean that you needed to have two features out of a possible five; prolonged duration was one of the list and anything over 12 months was considered “prolonged”. In DSM-IV, however, you only need one criterion, and anything over 2 months is prolonged.
What happened? DSM-IV classified many more cases as complicated than the older criteria – 80% vs 45%. That’s no surprise there because the criteria are obviously a lot broader. But which was better? In order to evaluate them, they compared the “complicated” vs “normal” episodes on six hallmarks of clinical depression – melancholic features, seeking medical treatment, etc.
They found that “complicated” cases were more severe under both criteria but the difference was much more clear cut using DSM-III-R.
Wakefield et al are not saying that the DSM-III-R criteria were perfect. However, it was better at identifying the severe cases than the DSM-IV, which is worrying because DSM-IV was meant to be an improvement on the old system.
Hang on though. DSM-V is coming soon. Are they planning to put things back to how they were, or invent an even better system? No. They’re planning to, er, get rid of the bereavement criteria altogether and treat bereavement just like non-bereavement. Seriously. In other words they are planning to diagnose depression purely on the basis of the symptoms, out of context.
Which is so crazy that Wakefield has written another paper all about it (he’s been busy recently), which I’m going to cover in an upcoming post. So stay tuned.
Wakefield JC, Schmitz MF, & Baer JC (2011). Did narrowing the major depression bereavement exclusion from DSM-III-R to DSM-IV increase validity? The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 199 (2), 66-73 PMID: 21278534