Coping with grief

David Beckingham, Mental Health Specialist

The revelation by Prince Harry that he has suffered for many years with grief reaction following the sudden death of his mother has gained a lot more publicity to promote the cause of mental health awareness than many other people’s experience. He has received praise from mental health campaigners and it strengthened the theme of mental health awareness as part of the causes being supported by the London Marathon last month, and Mental Health Awareness week which began on 8th May.

Grief reaction

It’s also provoked some discussion about the nature of mental health disorder. An exercise designed by the City and Guilds Certificate in Mental Health course illustrates the point. Participants are asked to consider whether a woman who keeps a shrine in her home to her son who died five years ago. Is she suffering from a mental health problem? Now there’s no right or wrong answer to that. There’s a recognition that this is a grief reaction, but the question is whether the reaction is so long-standing that this is no longer a normal grief reaction, but has now become a mental health problem and the sufferer needs help. The QCS Grief and Loss Policy and Procedure discusses these issues in more detail.

Difficult judgements

The difficulty of deciding whether our thoughts and behaviours are the result of emotional distress or a recognised mental health diagnosis is very complex. It has been the subject of a number of pieces of case law. In a case in the House of Lords in 1997 (before its role was taken over by the Supreme Court) Lord Steyn said mental disorders “must be distinguished from… problems in coping with everyday fear.” He said that was a matter of psychiatric judgement.

One in four

Consider the often quoted statistic that one in four people experience mental health problems. The evidence for this appears to be an Office of National Statistics survey of households asking people if they had experienced a mental disorder in the last year. This is a useful statistic in breaking down stigma, but if one in four of the population sought specialist mental health intervention this would mean a massive impact on services. So is there a dilemma here. So being able to identify more people with mental health problems can encourage others to seek help when otherwise they might hide their distress because they feel they will be stigmatised. On the other hand, if resources for help are limited, will that mean resources will be sparser for the people with the severest and most disabling mental health problems?

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