Dissociative symptoms are common among individuals with depression, study finds

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

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

These symptoms can be associated with experiencing trauma or significant stress. Depression, which many people suffer from and can be very difficult to treat, can encompass these pathological dissociative symptoms as well. This study sought to explore the relationships between dissociative symptoms, depression, trauma, and other potential 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 web. Measures included questionnaires regarding sociodemographic information, depression symptoms, dissociative symptoms, trauma experiences, interpersonal stress, family support, and perceived benefits of psychiatric medication.

Results showed that the majority of participants reported experiencing clinically significant levels of dissociative symptoms. Some dissociative symptoms, such as disengagement and depersonalization, were very common and were found in over 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 reporting 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 could potentially be one reason that depression can be difficult to treat. Additionally, emotional constriction, a dissociative symptom, was found to be related to decreased perceived benefits of psychiatric medication, which also has treatment implications.

This study took strides into better understanding the prevalence of dissociative symptoms in people with depression. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample was recruited online and was not a clinical sample. With self-report symptoms, it is difficult to say if all participants would reach diagnostic criteria for depression or dissociative symptoms. Additionally, people going through more severe mental health problems were excluded, and due to the distressing nature of dissociative symptomology, it is possible this limited generalizability.

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

The study, “Prevalence and correlates of dissociative symptoms among people with depression“, was authored by Hong Wang Fung, Wai Tong Chien, Stanley Kam Ki Lam, Colin A. Ross.

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