Grief is in danger of being branded a medical condition if a mourner feels sad for two weeks and consults a GP, says an international authority on death and dying.
At present, mourners can feel sad for two months before being told they have a mental disorder, says Professor Dale Larson. Decades ago, the diagnosis would not be made until after a year of sorrow.
Speaking to an Australian Psychological Society conference in Melbourne today, Larson will express his anger about the American Psychiatric Association's new diagnostic manual, which is used in many countries including Australia and New Zealand.
The manual, to be published in May, allows a diagnosis of depression after two weeks of grieving.
But Larson says the manual undermines the legitimate feelings of the mourner and the help available from family, support groups, clergy and professional counsellors.
"We are essentially labelling grief a disorder. Now it becomes a target for drug development."
Larson, head of counselling psychology at Santa Clara University in the United States, is concerned GPs will be dishing out prescriptions for anti-depressants.
"Almost all bereaved people believe they are depressed. But grief is a normal healing process and it resolves itself in most cases," he said yesterday. "Bereavement-related depression is different from other kinds of depression.
"Medication, not psychotherapy, will be the major treatment because most people see their GP when they have an issue."
He said the focus should be on "helping the mourner figure out grief's questions: 'What's happening to me and how long will it last?'
"It's a bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry. The GP prescribes anti-depressants and the bereaved feel better, largely because of placebo effects. The truth is people are resilient and they would have got better on their own."