The grieving process is in danger of being branded a medical condition if a mourner feels sad for two weeks and consults a GP, according to 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, a diagnosis could be made after a year.
In a keynote address at an Australian Psychological Society conference in Melbourne on Saturday, Prof Larson will express his anger about the American Psychiatric Association's new diagnostic manual, DSM 5, 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.
According to Prof Larson, the manual undermines the legitimate feelings of the mourner and the help available from family, support groups, clerics and professional counsellors.
"We are essentially labelling grief a disorder. Now it becomes a target for drug development."
Prof Larson, head of Counselling Psychology at Santa Clara University in the US, 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.
"Bereavement-related depression is different from other kinds of depression," he told AAP on Friday.
"Medication, not psychotherapy, will be the major treatment because most people see their GP when they have an issue."
He acknowledged support in Australia might be more focused on the needs of the mourner, who could take advantage of a Medicare benefit and consult a psychologist.
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.
"If they do struggle, and many do, talk therapy should be the first line of support."
Prof Larson said the authors of the new guidelines had a genuine desire to help people. "People do have complicated grief. That's a reality. One option would be to include a diagnosis for prolonged grief disorder.
"I personally think a year is the minimum amount of time before a disorder should be diagnosed, if we do medicalise this universal human experience."