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The Spectrum of Dissociative Disorders: An Overview of Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of dissociative disorders starts with an awareness of the prevalence of childhood abuse and its relation to these clinical disorders with their complex symptomatology. A clinical interview, whether the client is male or female, should always include questions about significant childhood and adult trauma. The interview should include questions related to the above list of symptoms with a particular focus on dissociative experiences. Pertinent questions include those related to blackouts/time loss, disremembered behaviors, fugues, unexplained possessions, inexplicable changes in relationships, fluctuations in skills and knowledge, fragmentary recall of life history, spontaneous trances, enthrallment, spontaneous age regression, out-of-body experiences, and awareness of other parts of self (Loewenstein, 1991).

Structured diagnostic interviews such as the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) (Putnam, 1989), the Dissociative Disorders Interview Schedule (DDIS) (Ross, 1989), and the Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociative Disorders (SCID-D) (Steinberg, 1990) are now available for the assessment of dissociative disorders. This can result in more rapid and appropriate help for survivors. Dissociative disorders can also be diagnosed by the Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS) (Mills Cohen, 1993).

The diagnostic criteria for the diagnosis of DID are (1) the existence within the person of two or more distinct personalities or personality states, each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self, (2) at least two of these personality states recurrently take full control of the person's behavior, (3) the inability to recall important personal information that is to extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness, and (4) the disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (blackouts due to alcohol intoxication) or a general medical condition (APA, 1994). The clinician must, therefore, "meet" and observe the "switch process" between at least two personalities. The dissociative personality system usually includes a number of personality states (alter personalities) of varying ages (many are child alters) and of both sexes.

In the past, individuals with dissociative disorders were often in the mental health system for years before receiving an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. As clinicians become more skilled in the identification and treatment dissociative disorders, there should no longer be such delay.

Treatment

The heart of the treatment of dissociative disorders is long-term psychodynamic/cognitive psychotherapy facilitated by hypnotherapy. It is not uncommon for survivors to need three to five years of intensive therapy work. Setting the frame for the trauma work is the most important part of therapy. One cannot do trauma work without some destabilization, so the therapy starts with assessment and stabilization before any abreactive work (revisiting the trauma).

A careful assessment should cover the basic issues of history (what happened to you?), sense of self (how do you think/feel about yourself?), symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, rage, flashbacks, intrusive memories, inner voices, amnesias, numbing, nightmares, recurrent dreams), safety (of self, to and from others), relationship difficulties, substance abuse, eating disorders, family history (family of origin and current), social support system, and medical status.

After gathering important information, the therapist and client should jointly develop a plan for stabilization (Turkus, 1991). Treatment modalities should be carefully considered. These include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, expressive therapies (art, poetry, movement, psychodrama, music), family therapy (current family), psychoeducation, and pharmacotherapy. Hospital treatment may be necessary in some cases for a comprehensive assessment and stabilization. The Empowerment Model (Turkus, Cohen, Courtois, 1991) for the treatment of survivors of childhood abuse--which can be adapted to outpatient treatment--uses ego-enhancing, progressive treatment to encourage the highest level of function ("how to keep your life together while doing the work"). The use of sequenced treatment using the above modalities for safe expression and processing of painful material within the structure of a therapeutic community of connectedness with healthy boundaries is particularly effective. Group experiences are critical to all survivors if they are to overcome the secrecy, shame, and isolation of survivorship.

Stabilization may include contracts to ensure physical and emotional safety and discussion before any disclosure or confrontation related to the abuse, and to prevent any precipitous stop in therapy. Physician consultants should be selected for medical needs or psychopharmacologic treatment. Antidepressant and antianxiety medications can be helpful adjunctive treatment for survivors, but they should be viewed as adjunctive to the psychotherapy, not as an alternative to it.


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Last Updated: 24 September 2015
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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