Dissociative identity disorder – also known as multiple personality disorder or split personality – is a condition in which a person develops alternative identities. In a sense, it is as if two or more people are existing within a single mind. Sometimes, the individual can sense the other identities, while for others, the different identities may not be aware of one another. The individual struggling with this disorder may also have areas of memory loss or amnesia.
As one might assume, it takes a powerful event to cause such a condition to occur. In fact, it takes one of the most powerful mental and emotional events of all: trauma.
Reasons for the development of dissociative identity disorder
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Natural disasters
- Trauma in early childhood
These root causes are further explored in the following paragraphs. In some cases, multiple causes may exist for one individual’s experience with dissociative identity disorder.
1. Emotional, Physical, or Sexual Abuse
According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 90 percent of cases of dissociative identity disorder involve some form of long-term abuse. The theory is that, if a person experiences trauma for a long enough period of time, that person might dissociate from the self in order to avoid the emotional, physical, and mental distress caused by the trauma. As time goes on, this dissociation can result in the individual observing the self as if it is another individual, resulting in the origin of multiple identities.
Some psychiatrists believe that dissociation is more likely to occur if the trauma is at the hands of someone the individual knows or trusts. If this is the case, this could explain the high percentage of people who have dissociative identity disorder as a result of sexual or physical abuse from a young age.
Sometimes, rather than a prolonged trauma, a short-term but intense trauma can bring on the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder. For example, a highly graphic or traumatic accident could cause a person to need to escape the scene in whatever way possible, which could lead to dissociation of identity. This can be especially true when personal loss or fear for one’s life is a factor, or if the person feels some level of culpability for the accident.
Sometimes, the development of mental health disorders, particularly as related to trauma, can be a sudden and urgent matter. As described by the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, the highest prevalence of dissociative identity disorder is found in emergency psychiatric settings.
3. Natural Disasters
Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, destructive storms, volcanoes, and floods, among others, have been known to lead to long-term trauma and PTSD. In addition, especially in cases where the disaster results in a high level of loss of life, or there is long-term suffering or loss that extends for long periods due to inability to rescue or help the suffering, a person may try to separate from feelings of loss, suffering, fear, and hopelessness by taking the position of observing the situation from “outside.”
Interestingly, as discussed in a study from George Fox University, trauma from natural disasters tends to occur at a lower level than human-caused trauma. Nevertheless, the widespread death and destruction from these types of disasters can lead to the condition in some instances.
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It is already well known that soldiers and others with firsthand experience of war are at risk for conditions related to trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, studies of Vietnam veterans, such as one from the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, have demonstrated that combat veterans can also struggle with dissociative disorders. In fact, PTSD and dissociative identity disorder have been found to coexist in some cases.
Similarly, civilians caught up in the trauma of conflict can experience dissociation that leads to the disorder, particularly if they experience a great deal of prolonged violence or are exposed to it at a young age. Children who experience a great deal of loss during such conflicts are extremely susceptible to this type of disorder.
5. Loss of a Loved One
Losing loved ones creates inner turmoil for most people. When a loved one is lost under violent circumstances, or when the individual left behind is unable to cope with the loss for one reason or another, the degree of grief can lead the person to dissociate and potentially develop an alternate identity to deal with the loss.
Again, this is more likely to occur in childhood, when loss of a parent or other caregiver leaves the child susceptible, frightened, or somehow victimized. However, it can also happen to adults if the loss occurs under violent circumstances or as the result of an accident, especially if the individual feels that the accident or circumstances were somehow the result of the individual’s actions or behavior. Guilt can be a powerful source of dissociation. In fact, a study from the Journal of Clinical Psychology indicates that guilt and shame can actually be predictors of dissociative behaviors.
6. Trauma in Early Childhood
According to an article in Psychology Today, children who experience trauma, particularly at a very young age, are susceptible to developing dissociative identity disorder. Due to their dependence on adults for certain levels of security and safety, a child is much less able to get away from abuse, natural disasters, war, or other traumas. As a result, the only escape for these children is through dissociation, which can then lead to developing alternate identities.
This can be magnified if the source of the trauma is someone the child trusts, such as a family member who is sexually abusing the child. The struggle between the need for trust and the need to escape can result in the child seeking refuge in the creation of an impartial observer who doesn’t feel the fear, anxiety, and pain felt by the victim of the abuse.
Dissociative identity disorder is rare and can be difficult to diagnose; however, the causes of this complicated, challenging disorder are fairly well known. While understanding of dissociation and how alternate identities develop is growing, there is still much research to be done to develop further knowledge about the causes, details, and potential treatments of this debilitating disorder.