What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Get dissociative identity disorder definition. Understand relationship between DID and severe child abuse and other DID info.

There is some discussion around the specific definition of dissociative identity disorder, but, according to Medscape, dissociative identity disorder is a serious mental illness and is increasingly understood as "a complex and chronic posttraumatic psychopathology closely related to severe, particularly early, child abuse." Dissociative identity disorder, commonly known as DID, is characterized by two or more personalities within the individual. Typically, one is dominant and present more of the time but, at all times, one personality is present.

Previously known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder is one of several known dissociative disorders. It commonly involves:

  • disruptions in memory, awareness, identity and/or perception
  • auditory hallucinations
  • severe depression and suicidality
  • phobic anxiety
  • somatization (medical symptom with no discernable cause)
  • substance abuse
  • borderline personality features

You can see the dissociative identity disorder (DID) DSM-5 criteria here.

Definition of Dissociation in Reference to DID

Severe dissociation is central to dissociative identity disorder. According to Mosby's Medical Dictionary, dissociation is defined as, "an unconscious defense mechanism by which an idea, thought, emotion, or other mental process is separated from the consciousness and thereby loses emotional significance." Very mild forms of dissociation are experienced by most people. For example, when you drive to work via the same route as you have many times and when you arrive, you realize you have no memory of the drive. That is a form of dissociation. However, people with DID experience very severe forms of dissociation that actually separate their consciousnesses into various personalities.

Severe Childhood Abuse and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder is not normally diagnosed until adulthood but it is thought to develop in childhood when severe, repeated, prolonged childhood abuse or neglect is taking place. Dissociation occurs as a defense mechanism to protect a person's consciousness from the actions currently taking place. In very severe cases, this dissociation actually creates more than one personality in a single individual – DID.

Not all abused children develop a dissociative disorder but studies indicate that abused children show more dissociation than non-abused children do.

How Common Is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

It is not known exactly how common dissociative identity disorder is; it is thought to be rare, although more common than previously thought. Some experts put the number as high as 1% of the population. This may due to the increasing number of child abuse cases. In 1995, it was estimated that one-in-25 children were abused, although more recent estimates put the number of physical/sexual abuse cases at almost 50%. More females suffer from childhood abuse than males, at a ratio of 10:1, so it's likely that, overall, more women than men suffer from DID. However, males may suffer more dissociation that rises to a level of dysfunction than females. (Dissociative Identity Disorder Controversy: Is DID Real?)

Prognosis of Those Who Meet the Definition of DID

While DID is a severe mental illness, treatment of dissociative identity disorder is available and helpful. The first priority is to ensure that all forms of abuse has ceased. Once that is done, therapy focuses on trust issues, healthy coping behaviors, logging of emotions and developing a crisis plan. In addition to DID therapy, medication may be used to aid in the treatment of some symptoms such as severe depression.

Additional DID Information

article references

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2022, January 4). What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: January 12, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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