Dissociative symptoms are common among individuals with depression, study finds

“Dissociate” has become a buzzword on the internet, but what does it mean and how common is it? A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research suggests that this mental disconnection may be very common in people with depressive symptoms.

Dissociation is a word used to describe a mental detachment or separation. It is now a popular word on social media and it can be used to describe normal forgetfulness, daydreaming or absent-mindedness. It also has a pathological definition, which includes amnesia, hearing voices, flashbacks, derealization, depersonalization, identity fragmentation, and more.

These symptoms may be related to experiencing trauma or significant stress. Depression, which many people suffer from and is very difficult to treat, can also include these pathological dissociative symptoms. This study sought to examine the relationships between dissociative symptoms, depression, trauma and other possible mediating factors.

Hong Wang Fung and colleagues used 410 adult participants with self-reported clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms. Participants were recruited online and completed their survey on the Internet. Measures included questionnaires regarding sociodemographic information, depression symptoms, dissociative symptoms, trauma experiences, interpersonal stress, family support, and perceived benefits of psychiatric medications.

The results showed that the majority of participants reported experiencing clinically significant levels of dissociative symptoms. Some dissociative symptoms, such as withdrawal and depersonalization, were very common and found in more than 70% of participants, while others, such as identity dissociation, were much rarer. This study found differences between participants who showed high versus low levels of dissociative symptoms.

Participants who reported higher levels of dissociation also reported higher levels of childhood and adulthood trauma, interpersonal stress, PTSD symptoms, and depressive symptoms. This leads to the idea that dissociative symptoms may be a reason why depression can be difficult to treat. In addition, emotional narrowing, a dissociative symptom, was found to be associated with reduced perceived benefits of psychiatric medication, which also has implications for treatment.

This study made progress in better understanding the prevalence of dissociative symptoms in people with depression. Nevertheless, there are limitations to note. One of those limitations is that the sample was recruited online and was not a clinical sample. With self-reported symptoms, it is difficult to say whether all participants would meet the diagnostic criteria for depression or dissociative symptoms. In addition, people with more severe mental health problems were excluded, and due to the distressing nature of dissociative symptoms, this limited generalizability is possible.

“This study adds to the literature by systematically examining the prevalence and correlates of dissociative symptoms in a sample of people with depressive symptoms,” the researchers conclude. “Dissociative symptoms were positively correlated with trauma, stress, and trauma-related symptoms in our sample. People with depression should be screened for dissociative symptoms to ensure timely interventions to address trauma and dissociation and associated symptoms as needed.”

The study, “Prevalence and Correlates of Dissociative Symptoms in People with Depression,” is authored by Hong Wang Fung, Wai Tong Chien, Stanley Kam Ki Lam, Colin A. Ross.

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