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When Teens Have Dissociative Disorder And What To Do About It

depressed teenager

The National Alliance on Mental Illness define dissociative disorders as “involuntary escapes from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.” Dissociation most commonly occurs as a psychological response to a traumatic event. It is important to note that not all traumatic events will elicit a dissociative response, but research has indicated that trauma is usually the underlying cause for a young person dissociating. Adolescence is a time period in a person’s life that is full of physiological changes, heightened emotions, surging hormones and a newfound desire for autonomy. A young person’s underdeveloped psychological foundation coupled with inevitable turmoil and overwhelming feelings associated with navigating adolescence can leave a teenager vulnerable to dissociation in the wake of trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes three distinct types of dissociative disorders: dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder, and depersonalization disorder. 

Signs and Symptoms

Every teenager is different. The combination of symptoms of dissociative disorders that could present will be unique to each person, as will the severity of symptoms. The Mayo Clinic provides the following examples of signs and symptoms that may be exhibited by a teen struggling with a dissociative disorder:

  • Depression
  • Out-of-body experiences
  • A lack of or blurred sense of self-identity
  • Emotional numbness/ detachment from emotions
  • Amnesia (memory loss of people and personal information, certain time periods, events…etc.) 
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to cope well with stress and/ or emotions
  • Suicidal ideations

The DSM-5 asserts that the specific signs and symptoms a teenager may exhibit will directly correlate with the specific dissociative disorder of which he or she is diagnosed. There are a variety of potential risk factors that may increase a young person’s susceptibility for developing a dissociative disorder; the most notable risk factors include children that have experienced long-term exposure to emotional, physical, and/ or sexual abuse. 

What To Do About It

If a young person experiences a traumatic event and/ or has been abused, seeing a medical and/ or mental health professional can be helpful in him or her potentially avoiding developing a dissociative disorder. If a dissociative disorder has already presented, a teen should obtain ongoing mental health services. A mental health professional can not only help support a teen through the inevitable challenges that arise throughout adolescence, but also help provide alternative coping mechanisms. An adolescent must be armed with a variety of coping mechanisms to effectively navigate through his or her teenage years, in a healthy and sustainable fashion. Furthermore, learning and integrating healthy coping mechanisms at a young age can prove greatly beneficial well into adulthood. Young people with dissociative disorders are at an increased risk for developing tangential mental health issues. If left untreated, a teen may present with any combination of the following complications, as provided by National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • Depression and/ or anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep disorders (i.e. sleep walking, insomnia, nightmares…etc.)
  • Non-epileptic seizures
  • Personality disorders
  • Self-harm or mutilation
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

The development of a dissociative disorder is a young person’s attempt at coping with trauma. If the trauma goes unaddressed, a teen will likely continue to rely on this coping mechanism, which can, in turn, lead to the development of additional mental health complications. The symptoms and complications that can arise from a dissociative disorder can be debilitating and traumatic, and without alternative coping mechanisms a young person will be left with no choice but to rely on dissociation. The most efficient method for shedding this coping mechanism is to deem it useless, by implementing other methods that are more applicable and useful. 

For Information and Support 

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know is in need of mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person for the long term. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Our admissions team is available to answer any general questions regarding mental health issues, treatment, and/or specific questions about the program at Pacific Teen Treatment and how we might be able to help your family. We can be reached by phone 24/7 at 800-531-5769. You can also contact us via email at info@pacifictrtc.com or through our contact form.

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