Feeling unreal: a depersonalization disorder update of 117 cases

J Clin Psychiatry. 2003 Sep;64(9):990-7. doi: 10.4088/jcp.v64n0903.


Background: Despite a surge of interest and literature on depersonalization disorder in recent years, a large series of individuals with the disorder has not been described to date. In this report, we systematically elucidate the phenomenology, precipitants, antecedents, comorbidity, and treatment history in such a series.

Method: 117 adult subjects with depersonalization disorder (DSM-III-R/DSM-IV criteria) consecutively recruited to a number of depersonalization disorder research studies were administered structured and semistructured diagnostic interviews and the Dissociative Experiences Scale. Data were gathered from 1994 to 2000.

Results: The illness had an approximately 1:1 gender ratio with onset around 16 years of age. The course was typically chronic and often continuous. Illness characteristics such as onset, duration, and course were not associated with symptom severity. Mood, anxiety, and personality disorders were frequently comorbid, but none predicted depersonalization severity. The most common immediate precipitants of the disorder were severe stress, depression, panic, marijuana ingestion, and hallucinogen ingestion, and none of these predicted symptom severity. Negative affects, stress, perceived threatening social interaction, and unfamiliar environments were some of the more common factors leading to symptom exacerbation. Conversely, comforting interpersonal interactions, intense emotional or physical stimulation, and relaxation tended to diminish symptom intensity. There were no significant gender differences in the clinical features of the disorder. In this sample, depersonalization tended to be refractory to various medication and psychotherapy treatments.

Conclusion: The characteristics of depersonalization disorder found in this sample, the largest described to date, are in good accord with previous literature. The study highlights the need for novel therapeutic approaches to treat depersonalization disorder. Novel medication classes, as well as novel psychotherapeutic techniques that build on the reported symptom fluctuation factors, may prove helpful in the future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Comorbidity
  • Depersonalization / diagnosis*
  • Depersonalization / epidemiology
  • Depersonalization / psychology
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality Inventory / statistics & numerical data
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology