Under the Hood

What Are Dissociative Disorders? Common As Depression But You Don't Know You Have It

In 2017, mental health experts criticized M. Night Shyamalan’s movie ‘‘Split’’ due to its inaccurate portrayal of people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as inherently violent. Media portrayals of this disorder previously known as multiple personality disorder is exaggerated for cinematic effect. 

Researchers at the University of New England and University of Newcastle in Australia have tried to demystify dissociative disorders and illuminate how common this mental illness is among people. Their goal by proving the prevalence of the disorder recognized by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV is to help sufferers alleviate symptoms with better medical treatment. 

According to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization, one third of people feel transient and mild dissociation like they are watching themselves in a movie. While 4 percent feel that way one third of the time, this feeling is said to decline after the age of 20 since the incidences are more prevalent among the youth. 

Mental health personnel are not comfortable diagnosing dissociative disorders since the patients could have received prior diagnoses such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doctors are concerned with patients displaying symptoms to escape certain negative thoughts and circumstances. Practitioners tend to be skeptical since they lack training and education on the disorder. Data on this subject is not enough due to a lack of awareness, making it difficult to observe these symptoms in people. 

What is a dissociative disorder?

There are three types of dissociative personality disorders. Dissociative amnesia is one and causes memory loss of regular personal information brought on by stress and trauma. It generally relates to the inability to recall autobiographical information, such as details of a location, journey or incident. 

Anothder disorder is depersonalization disorder, explained by Mary-Anne Kate, one of the authors of the study, in an article for The Conversation. She gave the example of a wife blocking out her husband’s death to plan the funeral. People like this woman have a detachment from their surroundings and others in their immediate environment. 

borderline personality disorder There is a 11.4 percent prevalence of dissociative disorders among the general population, says a study. Petras Gagilas, CC by 2.0

Mary-Anne said they generally compartmentalize and disconnect from traumatic experiences as a coping mechanism. Emotions, thoughts and experiences the patient associates with traumatic occurences like sexual abuse or getting fired become a separate aspect of the personality. The person may have an internal voice or may exhibit behavior different from their main personality traits. 

Dissociative identity disorder is the presence of two or more identities in one person. The choice of food, clothes and preferences may change according to each personality. They may feel like they are observers in their own life and have out of body experiences. It could include transformation in gender, voice and maturity levels.

What the Research Says

Research was conducted through a meta-analysis of 31,905 college students. 12 studies diagnosed dissociative disorders and 92 studies measured the level of dissociation on Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES). 

The findings revealed that 11.4 percent of students meet the criteria for dissociative disorders, which is consistent and reflective of the general population. It also coincided with data that said 12 percent of the sample population had experienced childhood trauma. 

Two types of dissociation models were studied. The trauma model (TM) is based on the patient’s detachment from their caregivers in childhood and sexual or emotional abuse. This model is accepted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Psychiatric Association (APA).  

The fantasy model (FM) is based on the assumption that it is caused by sleep deprivation on people who are likely to concoct fantasies to escape troubles. It was considered a fad of the 1990s, but the research showed that the rates have not dropped. All the results of the study said that dissociative disorder are not caused by fantasy at all and are all responses to severe trauma. This is especially true for unsafe countries where there is more trauma and dissociation due to refugee crises or terrorism, the research said.