Why is dissociative identity disorder controversial?

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Why is dissociative identity disorder controversial? Photo of a person with short natural red hair in freckles leaning against the side of a bus. Their blurred reflection is mirrored on the side of the bus.

"Even though 10% of people will have the disorder at some point in their lives, why is dissociative identity disorder controversial?" | Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Dissociative identity disorder controversy: so why is DID controversial?

Dissociative identity disorder is controversial because ...

Did you know that even though 10% of people will have the disorder at some point in their lives, dissociative identity disorder is controversial?

Dissociative identity disorders are often said to be rare. But research published in April 2019 suggests they affect 10-11% of people at some point in their lives. This makes dissociative identity disorders nearly as common as mood disorders (such as clinical depression). 

So what are dissociative disorders and why are they controversial?

What is dissociative identity disorder and how does it affect daily life?

Dissociation occurs when a person experiences being disconnected from themselves, including their memories, feelings, actions, thoughts, body, and even their identity.

People with dissociative identity disorders have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • amnesia and other memory problems
  • a sense of detachment or disconnection from their self, familiar people, or surroundings
  • an inner struggle about their sense of self and identity
  • acting like a different person (identity alteration).

For some people, dissociative identity disorder symptoms can last days or weeks, but for others, they can persist for months, years, or a lifetime.

Dissociation allows the person to compartmentalize and disconnect from aspects of traumatic and challenging experiences that could otherwise overwhelm their capacity to cope.

A person whose spouse has died may become emotionally numb, allowing them to focus on arranging the funeral; a man who has separated from his wife and lost his job soon afterward may become so disconnected from his identity that he no longer recognizes himself in the mirror and feels his life is happening to someone else. A young woman who is sexually assaulted may remember her attacker moving too quickly towards her, recalls being safely back in her family home, but cannot remember the assault.

If the traumatic and overwhelming experiences repeatedly happen over a long period of time, the person’s personality may become fragmented. The traumatized part of the personality that contains the emotions, thoughts, sensations, and experiences relating to the trauma becomes separated from the part of the personality that is trying to get on with daily life. This allows young children to be with frightening and abusive caregivers they can neither fight nor flee from as they are dependent on them.

The person may have no (or only some) conscious awareness of the compartmentalized memories, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

These may, however, intrude into the person’s awareness. For example, the person may be aware of thoughts, feelings, and internal voices that don’t “belong” to them or may speak or act in ways that are completely out of character.

The most extreme form of structural dissociation is dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder. This is where the person has at least two separate personalities that exist independently of one another and that emerge at different times.

These personality differences are not just psychological. Neuroimaging confirms structural differences in the brains of people with dissociative identity disorder.

In the US comedy, The United States of Tara, what caused her disorder? Australian actor Toni Collette, who plays Tara, has dissociative identity disorder. Despite what you see in Tara, most dissociative disorders are far less extreme.

Why is dissociative identity disorder so controversial?

Why is DID controversial? So why is dissociative identity disorder so controversial? The dissociative identity disorder controversy stems from the two competing theories about why dissociative identity disorder occurs: trauma and fantasy.

With the trauma model, dissociative symptoms arise from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect, particularly in childhood; attachment problems if a child fears the caregiver or the caregiver is not adequately attuned to the child’s emotional or safety needs; and other severe stress or trauma, such as experiencing or witnessing domestic violence.

This trauma model is reflected in the World Health Organisation and the American Psychiatric Association's past and present diagnostic criteria.

However, the fantasy model is based on the idea that dissociative disorders are not “real.” Instead, they are the delusion of troubled (and often traumatized), suggestible, fantasy-prone, and sleep-deprived people.

Fantasy model theorist Joel Paris describes dissociative disorders as a North American “fad” that has nearly died out.

Yet my analysis of 98 studies found rates are not declining. In fact, I found dissociation is an international phenomenon far more common in countries that are comparatively unsafe. This is supported by other research, which finds dissociation more common in people that have experienced trauma, such as refugees.

All up, the evidence indicates dissociative identity disorders are real (not imagined) and caused by trauma (not fantasy).

"Dissociative identity disorder is the most dramatic, least common, and most controversial dissociative disorder."

Dissociative identity disorders are under-diagnosed and misdiagnosed

Even though there are accurate ways of diagnosing dissociative identity disorders, most people will never be diagnosed. This is due to the lack of health professional education and training about dissociation disorders, the symptoms being less obvious to observers, and the controversy associated with dissociative disorders that helps fuel the skepticism that the disorder shouldn't even exist.

The person also may not realize they have dissociative symptoms. Even if they do, they may not reveal them due to fear or embarrassment or may find them difficult to put into words.

At least three-quarters of people with a dissociative identity disorder will also have one or more other mental disorders. They may be diagnosed with and treated for other mental health difficulties, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, borderline personality disorder, or psychosis. They may also be treated for addictions, self-harm, and/or suicidal thoughts (2% of those diagnosed complete suicide).

They may also be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia because hearing voices is common to both.

But their dissociative disorder usually remains undiagnosed. However, treatment for other mental health issues is not likely to be effective unless the underlying dissociation is addressed. 

How to treat dissociative identity disorder?

The mental health and quality of life of people with a dissociative identity disorder improves significantly with psychotherapy (a type of talk therapy) that recognizes the impact of trauma is physiological (affecting the brain and body) as well as psychological.

In therapy consistent with international treatment guidelines, people can learn skills to cope with unbearable emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. Once people are stable and have constructive coping strategies, therapists can then help people process traumatic and dissociated memories. Dissociative, post-traumatic, and depressive symptoms improve. And hospitalizations, self-harm, drug use, and physical pain declines.

There is no medication that specifically treats dissociation.

Where to get help for a dissociative identity disorder?

Even though dissociative identity disorder is controversial, dissociative identity disorders are one of the most common, yet most unrecognized, mental disorders. 

Symptoms are often debilitating, but significant improvements are possible if the dissociation is diagnosed and treated correctly.

If you are concerned about dissociative identity disorder, you can speak to your primary care doctor and ask for a referral to a therapist knowledgeable about trauma and dissociation. A list of therapists with this expertise is available from the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.

"The cost of ignorance about Dissociative Identity Disorder is high not only for individuals who live with the disorder but for the whole support system in which they live."

TeachTrauma, Towson University

Why is dissociative identity disorder controversial? was published as 'Dissociative disorders are nearly as common as depression. So why haven’t we heard about them?' in The Conversation. It is republished here under a Creative Commons — Attribution/No derivatives license

Article by
Mary-Anne Kate

Dr. Mary-Anne Kate, the author "Why is dissociative identity disorder controversial?," is a researcher specializing in interpersonal trauma, attachment, and post-traumatic disorders. She is a Scientific Committee member of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), where she also teaches the introductory course on dissociation.