I’m not the first one to say this and I certainly won’t be the last, but this wasn’t the best semester for anyone here at UMW. We’ve had some tough losses, but as Eagles we need to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off in order to finish this last week up strong. But all the events going on got me thinking about what the actual effect of grief is on cognition. We know it makes us more depressed, obviously, but does it have an effect on any other area of cognition?
The first step is to take a look at the effects that Depression has on the brain and how that can affect students in the first place. It’s important to note that 1 in 10 college students has Depression, so we need to rule out the group of students with symptoms already associated with it. This handy article tells us all we need to know about the symptoms. Emotionally, it causes stress and anxiety with no identifiable cause. Cognitively, it causes the person to be less alert and have more trouble making basic decisions and even paying attention, which leads to more stress.
Now that we’ve got the baseline down, let’s head to the grieving process. According to this article, grief may be a major cause of Depression. This is most likely because the two have so many symptoms in common, but let’s keep going further. Around the time a loved one is lost, a person’s thoughts tend to revolve around that person. They wonder why and how they passed, what they could have done to prevent it, how they’ll go on without them, etc. These thoughts eventually become intrusive and tend to overtake the mind, leading to attention deficits in everyday interactions. The afflicted person finds themselves always reverting back to thinking about their loved one, and it only stops when they seek help. In serious cases, a griever may begin to hallucinate about the deceased in order to cope with the loss and fill a void left by them. The realization that the hallucinations are in fact just that causes the feelings of depression to resume at a much deeper level.
In the DSM-4, bereavement is defined as something that “may be a focus of clinical attention.” That’s it. Holly G. Prigerson, a psychologist focused on grief studies, wanted to push the DSM-5 to acknowledge the cognitive effects of grief, saying “We knew that grief predicted a lot of bad outcomes—over and above depression and anxiety—and thought it was worthy of clinical attention in its own right.” So does this mean that grief is actually above Depression and that it’s actually one of the causes? Well, duh. However, just because one causes the other does not necessarily mean that the treatments will be the same. This article states that “grief is tied to a particular event […] whereas the origins of a bout of clinical depression are often more obscure. Antidepressants do not ease the longing for the deceased that grievers feel. So in most cases, treating grieving people for depression is ineffective.”
So, what does this all mean? It means we need to take care of ourselves, fellow Eagles. We’ve been through some tough times and they’re going to take a toll on us cognitively, possibly even leading to some more serious conditions if left untreated. Seek help, talk to someone you trust, or by all means utilize the campus resources offered to us all. That one session with a counselor might make the difference between being cognitively aware during your final exams and being completely spaced out.