New hope for prolonged grief

Strong feelings of grief are normal and healthy after the death of someone you love but recent research from UNSW suggests that some people grieve for so long that it becomes a significant mental illness.

Grief inside

Strong feelings of grief are normal and healthy after the death of someone you love but recent research from UNSW suggests that some people grieve for so long that it becomes a significant mental illness.

Estimates are that between 10 and 15 percent of bereaved people experience an intense, prolonged sadness arising from longing or yearning for the deceased - so much so that their overall health is impaired, they withdraw socially, become depressed and even suicidal. As well, there's growing recognition that traditional grief counselling may not help.

Happily, other recent findings suggest that such people can recover with treatment using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, an approach already shown to be more effective than medication for a range of psychological problems, including anxiety and traumatic stress.

Now a team of Sydney researchers and counsellors is conducting further studies to evaluate the treatment more fully and is seeking to recruit adults to take part in a free treatment program being offered by the UNSW Traumatic Stress Clinic.

"In recent years there has been new interest in the finding that losing a loved one by death can cause real mental health problems," says Professor Richard Bryant, an expert in grief and trauma at the UNSW School of Psychology. "For decades, people have suggested that grieving for the loss of a loved one is a normal human experience that everyone recovers from. Many grief counsellors have resisted the claim that loss can create significant psychological problems."

"Most people initially experience intense sadness that arises from longing or yearning for the deceased but if these reactions persist six months after the death their grief can become complicated or stalled, preventing them from moving on with their lives. There's already considerable evidence that people with this disorder suffer marked impairment beyond the effects of depression or other disorders that have often been used to describe this condition."

The idea that grief can lead to mental illness is controversial in medical and counselling circles, with vigorous and emotive debate arising from a proposal to formally classify the condition in forthcoming revisions of diagnostic manuals as a psychiatric disorder in its own right, known as prolonged grief disorder. "Many grief counsellors resist the idea that we can 'medicalise' grief reactions in this way," Bryant says. "The debate has been intensified by increasing evidence that grief counselling is often not effective. In contrast, the introduction of strictly defined disorder opens new opportunities to treat people suffering the effects of prolonged grief."

The UNSW Traumatic Stress Clinic is currently providing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for adults suffering prolonged grief disorder. Under the direction of UNSW Professor Richard Bryant, it is funded by the NHMRC and represents the most up-to-date approach in treating the condition. The program is free and is offered in combined group and individual formats at UNSW in Randwick and at Westmead Hospital. Any person interested in this program can call 02 9845 7979.

Media contact: Dan Gaffney, UNSW media office, 0411 156 015