- Author: Idan Sharon, MD; Chief Editor: David Bienenfeld, MD more...
Etiology and Introduction
Since the 1980s, the concept of dissociative disorders has taken on a new significance. They now receive a large amount of theoretical and clinical attention from persons in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. Dissociative disorders are a group of psychiatric syndromes characterized by disruptions of aspects of consciousness, identity, memory, motor behavior, or environmental awareness.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5), which came out in May 2013, was updated and now includes 3 dissociative disorders and one category for atypical dissociative disorders. These include dissociative amnesia (DA), dissociative identity disorder (DID), dissociative fugue, depersonalization/derealization disorder, and dissociative disorder not otherwise specified (DDNOS). The previous entity of dissociative fugue has been incorporated into dissociative amnesia and is no longer a separate diagnosis.
A 29-year-old female experienced the onset of dissociative amnesia during an academic trip to China. She was found in a hotel bathroom unconscious, with no signs of structural or neurologic abnormalities or alcohol or chemical consumption. The woman was sent home but could not remember her name, address, family, or any facts about her home life. The amnesia persisted for nearly 10 months, until the feeling of blood on the woman's fingers triggered the recollection of events from the night of onset of dissociative amnesia, and, subsequently, other facts and events. The woman finally remembered having witnessed a murder that night in China. She recalled being unable to help the victim out of fear for her own safety. She came to remember other aspects of her life; however, some memories remain elusive.
Dissociative identity disorder
In a case of dissociative identity disorder, a woman who had been physically and sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood and adolescence exhibited at least 4 personalities as an adult. Each personality was of a different age, representing the phases of the woman's experience–a fearful child, a rebellious teenager, a protective adult, and the woman's primary personality. Only one of the personalities, the protective adult, was consciously aware of the others, and during therapy sessions was realized to have been developed to protect the woman during the abusive experiences. When one of the secondary personalities took over, it often led to episodic dissociative amnesia, during which the woman acted out according to the nature of the dominating personality. During intensive therapy sessions, each personality was called upon as necessary to facilitate their integration.
Depersonalization/derealization disorder generally leads to observable distress in the affected individual. It often occurs in individuals who are also affected by some other psychological nondissociative disorder, as in the case of a 19-year-old college student who was suffering from sleep deprivation at the onset of depersonalization disorder. The young man experienced increased anxiety as he struggled to meet his responsibilities as a scholarship-dependent student athlete. Teammates expressed concern about his apparent distress to their coach, who arranged for the young man to speak with a therapist. The young man described feeling as though he were observing the interactions of others as if it were a film. The young man's anxiety was determined to contribute to severe sleep deprivation, which triggered episodes of depersonalization.
From a psychological perspective, dissociation is a protective activation of altered states of consciousness in reaction to overwhelming psychological trauma. After the patient returns to baseline, access to the dissociative information is diminished. Psychiatrists have theorized that the memories are encoded in the mind but are not conscious, ie, they have been repressed.
In normal memory function, memory traces are laid down in 2 forms, explicit and implicit. Explicit memories are available for immediate and conscious recall and include recollection of facts and experiences of which one is conscious, whereas implicit memories are independent of conscious memory. Further, explicit memory is not well developed in children, raising the possibility that more memories become implicit at this age. Alterations at this level of brain function in response to trauma may mediate changes in memory encoding for those events and time periods. Dissociation is also a neurologic phenomenon that can occur from various drugs and chemicals that may cause acute, subchronic, and chronic dissociative episodes.
The essential feature of dissociative amnesia is an inability to recall important personal information that is more extensive than can be explained by normal forgetfulness. Remembering such information is usually traumatic or produces stress.
DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia include a predominant disturbance of one or more episodes of an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness. In addition, the disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of dissociative identity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, or somatization disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or of a neurological or other general medical condition. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. In addition, if symptoms are associated with travel or bewildered wandering, than it is dissociative amnesia with fugue.
Different types of memory loss have been identified in persons with dissociative amnesia. These include localized, generalized, continuous, and systematized amnesia. Localized amnesia occurs when patients cannot remember certain time periods or events such as experiences in battle or situations of torture. Generalized amnesia occurs when patients cannot remember anything in their lifetime, including their own identity. Continuous amnesia occurs when patients have no memory of events up to and including the present time. This means that patients are alert and aware of their surroundings but are not able to remember anything. Systematized amnesia occurs when patients have a loss of memory for certain categories of information, such as certain places or persons.
See the list below:
Patient is alert and oriented.
Patient is subadequately related with limited eye contact.
Speech is slow and logical.
Attention and concentration are limited.
Energy level is not characterized by hyperactivity or slowing.
Recent memory may be slightly impaired.
Remote memory is intact.
Mood is anxious or dysphoric.
Affect is constricted.
A negligible degree of conceptual disorganization is present.
Reasoning and judgment are limited, and insight is lacking.
An increased likelihood of passive suicidal ideation as well as violent ideation, sometimes even homicidal, is present, most likely due to severe frustration of the dissociation.
Patients present with symptoms and behaviors that help determine their condition and subsequent diagnosis. Two factors help distinguish between the forms of dissociative amnesia present in the patient.
The first is a sudden, dramatic disturbance in which a vast amount of memories related to personal information are not available for conscious verbal recall. Although this presentation is rare, it is frequently featured in the media and is portrayed as a common occurrence. Patients with this manifestation often present in the emergency department or at neurology departments because the acute onset of memory loss requires immediate medical assessment. Patients present as disoriented, perplexed, and in a purposeless, wandering state. For example, one young lady, who discovered her boyfriend of 1 year was married with 2 children, handled the information by forgetting who she was for several weeks.
The second is a more common presentation and is a patient with a deletion of a large aspect of personal history from the conscious memory. These patients ordinarily do not complain of memory loss, and their condition is usually discovered after obtaining a thorough life history.
Dissociative amnesia usually has a clear-cut onset and finish. This means that the patient is aware of the deletion in continuous memory, as opposed to a gradual loss of normal memory. For example, patients may not remember a certain year of schooling or a certain job, even though they remember other years of schooling and other jobs. This is usually due to a traumatic experience during that time period, such as a rape or a kidnapping. In extreme cases, patients cannot remember their teenage years or other periods of their lifetime.
An acute onset of dissociative amnesia usually begins after a psychologically stressful life event that threatens the patient physically or emotionally (eg, a patient who is a victim of a rape or who is witness to the accidental death of a loved one). Onset and termination of the amnesia are usually abrupt. Patients usually recover the memory after proper treatment, but sometimes the patient develops a chronic form of amnesia. Unfortunately, some patients develop dissociative amnesia as an alternative to suicide, and if the memory is recovered without proper psychotherapy, patients can be at risk for suicide.
Dissociative amnesia occurs in 2-7% of the general population and has a high occurrence in those involved in wars, in patients with a history of child abuse or sexual abuse, in survivors of concentration camps, in victims of torture, and in survivors of natural disasters. Studies have shown that the extent of trauma is correlated with the development of amnesia.
Dissociative fugue is characterized by sudden, unexpected travels from the home or workplace with an inability to recall some or all of one's past. Some of these patients assume a new identity or are confused about their own identity. They seem to be running away from something of which they are unaware.
After the fugue episode resolves, patients are unable to remember the events of the state. Although moving occurs in other disorders, in fugue it is purposeful and is not enacted in a confused or dazed state. In a typical case, the fugue is brief, with purposeful travel, and with limited contact with others. Approximately 0.2% of the general population has dissociative fugue.
In terms of mental status, the examination can widely vary. The patient may present alert and oriented only to self. Eye contact and relatedness are limited to fair at best. Psychomotor activity is characterized by normal activity. Thought processes are intact, although thought content may vary widely from preoccupations to perseverations to obsessive fixations to none. Reasoning and judgment are lacking, and insight is poor. An increased finding of violent or homicidal ideation is present, but suicidal ideation is lacking.
The differential diagnoses of dissociative amnesia are any organic mental disorders, dementia, delirium, transient global amnesia, Korsakoff disease, postconcussion amnesia, substance abuse, other dissociative disorders, and malingering factitious disorder.
Memory loss in organic mental disorders is typically gradual and incomplete. Clinicians may encounter difficulty in differentiating substance abuse and dissociative amnesia because many patients minimize their abuse and also misattribute their amnesia to alcohol or drugs because of fear of a diagnosis of dissociation. Obtaining a careful history from multiple informants is often necessary to clarify the situation. However, unlike dissociative amnesia, memory loss due to substance abuse is seldom reversible.
Korsakoff disease may also be confused with dissociative amnesia. This disease, also known as alcohol amnestic disorder, is associated with heavy and prolonged alcohol abuse and is not associated with psychological stress. However, unlike dissociative amnesia, patients with Korsakoff disease are not able to learn new information and they often experience significant deterioration in personal functioning.
Amnesia from brain injury or head trauma can be differentiated from dissociative amnesia based on a history of trauma; patients usually have retrograde amnesia before the trauma, unlike patients with dissociative amnesia, who have anterograde amnesia. In addition, patients with brain injury do not show the susceptibility or response to hypnosis so frequently observed in patients with dissociative disorders. Because dissociative disorders are associated with some evidence of biological causality, not every case of trauma results in symptoms that produce the disorder, nor does every person with the disorder have a history of childhood or adult trauma.
Indications for hospitalization
In most instances in which patients present a clear and present danger to themselves or others, when medication effects must be evaluated, and in instances in which a diagnosis has not been determined, hospitalization is often necessary. Hospitalization allows patients to separate themselves from the environmental stimuli, sexual and physical abuses, and stresses that may be contributing to their reactions and episodes of amnesia, compulsive behaviors, and recklessness. It also protects them during a perplexing period of their lives when they honestly do not know who they are. Other indications are suicidal behavior or gesturing.
Patients may experience problems with concentration and feelings of rejection, reoccurrence of preexisting psychiatric conditions, intrusive reexperiencing of trauma or negative thinking, feelings of emotional overwhelm, paranoia or general distrust, and episodes of schizophrenia and fear.
Importantly, when psychotherapeutic techniques are applied in treatment, do not overwhelm patients with the force of intervention and the speed at which recovery is estimated to occur. Hence, in psychotherapy, timing and progressing at the appropriate speed are critical. Many cases of dissociative amnesia resolve spontaneously when the individual is removed from the stressful situation. The treatment of choice for dissociative amnesia is psychotherapy with augmentation by hypnosis or drug-facilitated interview. Patients with dissociative amnesia frequently have comorbid disorders of mood and anxiety disorders and PTSD. These disorders should be treated with pharmacological agents. Currently some of the new antiepileptic agents in combination with SNRIs, SSRIs, and atypical neuroleptics in more severe cases.
Hypnosis as a treatment process is supported by the state-dependent learning theory, in which therapeutic hypnosis is undertaken in a context of a consenting contract and is guided by the therapist. It has been viewed as a controlled form of dissociation; therefore, clinicians assume that the mental content and images that emerge are also controlled and that the patient can control the pace of the therapy. Although hypnosis is helpful, it is not necessary for recovery of historical material or for dealing with that which is recovered. It can be used as a vehicle to gain confidence in the patient. Self-hypnosis methods are available that help the patient apply some control over the pace and style of therapy.
According to Freud, the unconscious is affected by external stimuli on many levels; therefore, the suggestions made by medical practitioners to their patients influence the processing of information, traumatic memories, and patients' perception of their own experiences. For this reason, hypnosis can be a valuable tool for helping heal the trauma and assessing or retrieving additional historical data, which may clue the practitioner into the patient's needs and developmental health. This is not always the case when dealing with dissociative amnesia. Freud indicated that trauma depletes the ego of the patient when he or she is overstimulated. In this way, providing the patient with tools to rebuild the ego is imperative to better mental health and appropriate behavior.
The unconscious is stimulated in hypnosis; therefore, the patient has the opportunity to recover lost memories, if needed, and piece together the past. As a result, the incidence of patients claiming they remember old, forgotten, and remote episodes of childhood abuse is increasing, so much so that it has created controversy in this diagnostic group. Studies have shown that as many as 38% of victims of abuse who require a hospital visit did not recall the abuse 20 years later.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder, formerly referred to as multiple personality disorder, is characterized by the existence of 2 or more identities or personality traits within a single individual. Patients with this disorder demonstrate transfer of behavioral control among alter identities either by state transitions or by inference and overlap of alters who manifest themselves simultaneously. It is observed in 1-3% of the general population.
See the list below:
Patient is alert and oriented in all spheres.
Affect may be labile or irritable.
Mood is euthymic or anxious.
Relatedness is very limited, and eye contact is frequently minimal.
Thought content may be characterized by significant hypervigilance, preoccupations, or hallucinations.
Patient appears fixed on extraneous or internal stimuli.
Reasoning and judgment are diminished and insight is poor.
An overall increased incidence of both suicidal and homicidal ideation in these patients is present.
Orientation is frequently off.
Long-term memory is poor.
DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for dissociative identity disorder include the presence of 2 or more distinct identities or personality states, with at least 2 of these identities or personality states recurrently taking control of the person's behavior. Also, the inability of the patient to recall important personal information is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness. In addition, the disturbance is not due to the direct physiologic effects of a substance or a general medical condition. Importantly, note that symptoms in children are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
The dramatic and extreme patients with dissociative identity disorder depicted in the media probably represent fewer than 5% of patients with this disorder. Most patients with dissociative identity disorder have a covert and subtle presentation. The typical clinical presentation is one of a refractory psychiatric disorder, usually a mood disorder, or with multiple somatic symptoms. Patients have often received several psychiatric diagnoses over many years of treatment, such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, personality disorders, or various anxiety disorders.
Alter-identities vary in complexity and psychological structure. In some patients, highly developed alter-identities are present with marked presentational differences in posture, voice, mood, energy, interests, talents, capacities, manifest age, and even sex. However, in most cases, the alter-personalities are relatively limited in their depth and do not manifest dramatic differences. In general, all alter-identities should be held responsible for the behavior of each of the other alter-identities, despite subjective amnesia to the behavior.
Dissociative identity disorder is thought to begin in childhood in response to repeated traumatic and/or overwhelming life experiences, most of which involve physical and sexual abuse. Other traumatic events include long and painful childhood medical experiences and wartime dislocation. In studies of patients with dissociative identity disorder, a range of 70% of patients to more than 95% of patients reported childhood abuse. However, some patients cause controversy because they revise their histories as treatment progresses.
Patients with dissociative identity disorder typically also have dissociative amnesia. They cannot remember important life events. They have blackout phases and also experience fluctuations in personalities and talents. Some patients actually have variable blood pressures, blood glucose levels, changes in visual acuity, and variable responses to drugs and treatments with the shifting of identities.
Most patients with dissociative identity disorder are diagnosed in adulthood. However, with new knowledge and awareness of the sequela of abuse, patients are now being diagnosed in childhood and adolescence.
The current view is that dissociative identity disorder is a developmental posttraumatic disorder usually starting before age 6 years, although it is diagnosed much later. Traumatizing circumstances and poor relationships with caretakers disrupt the normal consolidation of personal identity across shifts in state, mood, and personal and social context. These traumatic memories are encapsulated to permit development in other areas of life such as academics and social life. These entities show some development separate from other identities. The outcome is a person embodying a number of relatively concrete independent self-states. These self-states are often in conflict with each other.
When diagnosing dissociative identity disorder, clinicians should also consider other disorders such as other dissociative disorders, mood disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia, seizure disorder, eating disorders, malingering, and factitious disorders.
Schizophrenia is in the differential diagnosis because patients often hear voices; the difference is that they hear voices within their heads, not from outside. Careful history taking to recognize chronic amnesia, symptoms of PTSD, a history of maltreatment, and the presence of alter identities may allow making a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder even if other comorbid disorders are observed.
Indications for hospitalization
The treatment of dissociative disorders is difficult and time-consuming and is mostly enacted via behavioral modifications through outpatient therapy. However, in extreme cases or when physical or emotional harm is imminent, hospitalization may be a required intervention. Some of the indications for inpatient assessment or hospitalization include severe depression over a long period, anxiety and delusion disorders that lead to compulsive acting out of behaviors, cognitive reactions (eg, nightmares, flashbacks), physical reactions, fatigue, and interpersonal reactions (eg, conflict, problems with mood regulation, antisocial behavior, physical aggressiveness, suicidal behavior, traumatic and schizophrenic episodes).
The ultimate goal for hospitalization of a patient is to ensure immediacy in restoring safety and stability. The patient remains at risk as long as no change in behavior or in approach for generating behavior modifications to improve response to stress and quality of life occurs.
In general, dissociative identity disorder is treated as a complex, chronic, trauma-based disorder. Accordingly, a developmental process of re-educating patients is used in treatment. The primary goals are encouraging healthy coping behaviors, logging and monitoring emotions, and developing a crisis plan. Kluft found that in patients with dissociative identity disorders, treatment of traumatic memories appears crucial in the recovery process, even though the reported memories may not be historically accurate. The ultimate goal of psychotherapy is to bring together all the facets of the person into 1 individual.
In developing healthy coping behavior, positive affirmations, 12-step group participation, group therapy, and developing hobbies and interests all may be part of the plan. Patients may learn the importance of setting goals, keeping time schedules, and being organized. Unfortunately, when triggers occur at an early enough age, they may be encompassed in the developing personality, and may be ingrained into personality disorders (ie, borderline personality disorder).
In logging and monitoring emotions, patients may keep a journal in which they write down their feelings at different parts of the day, foods consumed, and activities engaged in and the feelings or effects on their mood and desire to participate in activities. In this way, patients begin to identify possible triggers and make appropriate decisions regarding whether or not a possible trigger activity is worth the risk of their comfort or stability.
Lastly, developing a crisis plan may be extremely important in responding to situations that begin to feel out of control for the patient. In the crisis plan, when prevention is too late, the patient can self-soothe by having a specific, easy-to-follow plan for calming down and easing their emotional burden. The plan may include physical activity, focusing exercise, meditation, calling a specific person, or listening to a particular piece of music. The goal is essentially to allow patients to calm themselves, become able to learn from the experience, and try to not repeat the provoking behavior.
A case example is a 33-year-old woman with a history of sexual, physical, and emotional trauma. She has a crisis plan for dealing with her anger and grief. During episodes of rage, she hits a plastic bat against a pillow until she is able to get in touch with the feelings that caused her to be overwhelmed. Once she is aware of the emotions that have caused the anger response, she writes about the pain and shares it with a trusted friend over the telephone. In dealing with grief, she has a plan that includes listening to soothing music, crying, holding her cat or a favorite stuffed animal, and rocking until she feels soothed enough to have a discussion with a friend or therapist about the experience that caused her grief.
The patient sometimes resents the level of commitment required for caring for herself, but she realizes that accepting her situation is more productive than the alternative, which may be increased dosages of medication or inpatient treatment if she does not reduce the number and intensity of her episodes.
Derealization or depersonalization is characterized by feelings that the objects of the external environment are changing shape and size, or that people are automated and inhuman, and features detachment as a major defense. Depersonalization disorder usually begins in adolescence; typically, patients have continuous symptoms. Onset can be sudden or gradual. An estimated 2.4% of the general population meets the diagnostic criteria for this disorder. However, the prevalence rate is questioned by many clinicians and may be lower. This disorder frequently coexists with mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders.
See the list below:
Patient presents alert and disoriented in some spheres.
Both relatedness and eye contact are limited.
Patient may appear preoccupied and irritable.
A distressed facial expression with constricted affect is characteristic.
Reasoning, judgment, and insight are fair to limited.
The DSM-V defines depersonalization/derealization disorder as the occurrence of persistent or recurrent episodes of depersonalization and/or derealization that are not related to any other mental disorder and cause marked distress.
Depersonalization is defined as persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached, as if one is an outside observer of one's mental processes or body. Results from reality testing are usually normal during the experience. The episodes cause clinically significant distress and/or impairment in social, occupational, and other main areas of functioning. The depersonalization does not occur exclusively during the course of another mental disorder and is not due to direct effects of substance abuse or general medication.
Unfortunately, at this time, a specific and effective treatment plan has not been developed for depersonalization disorder. Studies show that psychotherapy and medications are not effective. Reports indicate that some patients respond to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or benzodiazepines. Further studies are needed to find an effective treatment regimen. At his time, the most viable treatment is to assist the patient in achieving comfort and stability, away from traumatic interactions.
Unspecified Dissociative States
DDNOS is a category of disorders that manifest with dissociative symptoms but fail to meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the dissociative syndromes described. An example of DDNOS is Ganser syndrome. This entity occurs primarily in men (80%) and is currently regarded as a dissociative means of withdrawal from a traumatic or stressful circumstance. It is characterized by absurd or approximate responses to interview dialogue, a dazed or clouded level of consciousness, somatic conversion symptoms (eg, pseudoparalysis), hallucinations, and, frequently, anterograde amnesia regarding the episode. Patients who demonstrate this phenomenon characteristically have an underlying cluster B personality disorder and, as such, may have a past history of abuse or other trauma. In general, these patients are at higher risk for dissociative symptoms when under stress.
The atypical neuroleptics, such as aripiprazole (Abilify), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), and ziprasidone (Geodon), are the accepted mode of treatment for dissociative disorders. Newer-generation anticonvulsants are also highly effective. Quetiapine is initiated at 25-50 mg PO bid and increased by 50 mg PO bid q3d until symptom resolution is achieved. The higher dose should be administered nightly because of the strong sedating histaminergic effects of the medicine. Other medications such as SSRIs (ie, escitalopram andparoxetine mesylate) and SNRIs (ie, duloxetine and venlafaxine) may reduce the anxiety and apprehension of the dissociation.
Keppra (levetiracetam) may be effective in treating dissociation. Doses are usually kept much lower than for the treatment of seizure disorders. Lamotrigine (Lamictal) started at 25 mg and increased by 25 mg every 2 weeks is another option. The effects of these novel anticonvulsants is thought to be secondary to GABA modulation.
Patient and Family Education
In recognizing and diagnosing dissociative disorders, relating information to the patient in a productive and sensitive manner is important. Significantly effective treatment for the disorder has not been established; however, methods exist to address and educate patients to foster appropriate self-care and independence and to positively affect their quality of life and level of comfort.
First, patients are taught techniques to manage symptoms and stabilize their dysfunctional lives. A broad range of psychotherapies may be used, including cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, supportive therapies, and hypnotherapy. According to Chefetz et al, somatosensory free association and appreciation of experiential aspects of depersonalization, derealization, and dissociative amnesia open new areas of negotiation between the therapist and the patient. Family members benefit from coming into sessions to understand, reassure, and provide corroboration.
Pharmacological interventions can be used to treat comorbid affective, anxiety-related, and PTSD conditions. After stabilization, some patients elect intensive psychotherapy to process their traumatic memories. Clinicians should exercise caution; premature intensive focus on trauma before symptoms are properly stabilized can lead to regression or decompensation. Finally, when trauma issues are fully resolved, patients should be focused on successful living without domination by posttraumatic conditions.
Most patients benefit from and need to be taught to abstain from participation in dangerous and stressful activities to reduce triggering episodes. Patients with all forms of amnesia in which trauma is present are given opportunities to develop a solid connection to others and to their healthy adult experiences and assistance with soothing the anxiety that often accompanies their amnesia. Patients are encouraged to develop coping skills that will sustain them during times of stress and difficulty. Imperative to their social survival is becoming somewhat vigilant at protecting themselves from additional trauma and harm. Therefore, patients are assisted with developing crisis plans and building their self-awareness specifically so that they may protect themselves. As such, tracking emotional reactions and mood changes becomes integral in the assessment and prevention of future amnesic episodes.
In patients in whom hypnosis is helpful, patients are assisted in developing appropriate activities to build self-esteem and commitments to allow them to maintain their successes and continue to gain social attachment and identity. Patients who are taught self-hypnosis techniques may also be encouraged to use positive affirmations, self-help books, and group therapy to continue to build necessary self-awareness and to develop interpersonal relationships with others.
Assume that the patient will regress at times and have a reoccurrence of loss of memory. Therefore, give patients an emergency plan to help themselves when they are in compromised states. Teach them to build social alliances, inform others of their potential for episodes of memory loss, and develop boundaries to protect their vulnerability and allow them to grow in the areas in which they were stunted by early trauma.
Overall, physicians should encourage the patient to develop healthy behavior; learn self-control; adapt to environmental stresses; and make rational, nonimpulsive decisions to avoid additional stress, abuse, and revisiting the terror of the past.
Patients with dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder, or dissociative fugue may benefit from psychotherapy and behavior modification. In these instances, patients are generally enrolled into one-on-one and group treatment, when beneficial, to begin building self-awareness and patterning for healthy social and interpersonal relationships.
In addition, their families and significant others benefit for explanations of the problem, thus allowing them to better support individuals in psychotherapy. The family members should join support groups not only to learn and acknowledge that the disorder is limiting, but also to recognize symptoms that arise periodically that may be part of the complex. Family therapy, along with the individual, leads to a more level and smooth transition to recovery.
These patients also may benefit from the use of medication as maintenance during the therapeutic process. When indicated, patients are taught to manage their medication and take it regularly. The risks of taking medication improperly should be discussed in detail to assist the patient in understanding the risks of stopping their pharmacotherapy without physician assistance.
Educational and support resources for patients and families
A number of organizations provide access to information about dissociative disorders online. The following Web sites may be of use to patients and their families:
MayoClinic.com, Dissociative disorders
Sidran Institute: Traumatic Stress Education & Advocacy, What is Dissociative Disorder?
Cleveland Clinic, Dissociative Amnesia (includes links to information on all 4 dissociative disorders)
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Dissociative Disorders (The NAMI site provides information on support resources and programs.)
The following support Web sites may also be useful to patients and/or their families:
PsychLinks Online, Psychology and Self-Help Forum
As with all other fields of medicine, medical liability and lawsuits are beginning to make a big impact on clinicians in the field of psychiatry and psychology. Criminal court trials in which an adult has filed a rape accusation against a relative, stating that the incident or incidents took place years ago but the memories were repressed, have become increasingly common in recent years. The memories are recovered after psychotherapy. If the clinician merely inquires about a trauma history, the question of whether he or she had a suggestive influence on the patient's memory then arises. This may make the therapist vulnerable to a lawsuit. If a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder is comorbid, that risk increases significantly.
Two types of lawsuits have occurred involving dissociative disorders. In the first type, the therapist allegedly reinforces memories of abuse reported by the patient, suggesting that they must be true and that the alleged perpetrators must be confronted. Because third parties are being accused of socially unacceptable crimes, lawyers may encourage them to sue the therapist for their role in the case. The second type of lawsuit involves a patient pursuing a suit against the therapist for allegedly using suggestive techniques or improper diagnoses. These lawsuits are becoming so popular that some law firms now advertise for representation on behalf of anyone diagnosed with dissociative disorders in an action against the therapist.
Even though science supports clinical practice in the field of dissociative disorders, the legal field has not been properly educated. Clinicians should learn to practice defensively in cases involving memory or dissociative disorders by keeping careful notes and by more frequent use of informed consent forms. Chart notes should be qualified as to the nature and source of the information. For example, using notation such as "the patient reports that (an incident) occurred" is more prudent (and more legally accurate) than recording a statement indicating an abuse (that has not been legally established as fact) has occurred. The possibility of suggestive influence should be taken into account by the clinician when conducting interviews and evaluating the information provided by patients.
Although in the past decade many questions have been answered about dissociative disorders, many more remain. The link between dissociative disorders and trauma is currently well accepted; however, studies in holocaust victims show that dissociation may not be related to all incidences of trauma. At present, a push exists to create a new category of trauma disorders that includes dissociative disorders. Hopefully, in the near future, proper treatment plans and effective regimens will be discovered for all dissociative disorders.
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