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Losing yourself: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Illustration by Shaumya Sankar

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t recognize yourself? For some people this goes so far that it turns into a pathological state, usually referred to as a dissociative identity disorder. 

In the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013), dissociative identity disorder (DID) is described as a disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states or an experience of possession. This definition might seem a bit intimidating, so let me try explaining it in a less medical manner. 

Firstly, what is a dissociative condition? It is a state that most people have experienced at least a dozen times in their lives: when we read a book we love, play a video game, watch a movie or even when you can not find something you just held in your hand. It’s the moments we get so lost in our own minds that for a second we forget what we were doing. 

What separates this state that we have all experienced from a full on disorder is above all the quantitative aspect. Where we usually remember where we left that thing a few minutes later, they spend entire hours in this dissociative state, and later they don’t remember it at all. 

There are different types of dissociative disorders, with different particularities to the dissociative states. What makes DID stand out, is the fact that when people suffering from DID dissociate, they usually tend to act like a completely different person, having completely different habits, gestures and even referring to themselves with different names. Patients harbor two or more personalities, with cases up to a 100 (DSM-IV, 1994) different alters being on record, and in some cases, these personalities can communicate with one another (Howell 2011; Keys 1981). However, it is a very rare disorder affecting between 0.01% and 1% of the population.

Now that we have a general idea of what DID is, the next question is of course, what leads people to dissociate? How do you end up like this? The most cited cause of dissociative identity disorder is trauma. It is believed that in the case of a deep traumatic event, people develop different personalities as a coping mechanism, in order for the person not to experience the full impact of the occurrence. The most common events behind DID are sexual assault and childhood abuse. (Wiginton 2021, Edelstein 2015)

How is DID detected? What are the diagnostic criteria? The most known symptom, and perhaps the most obvious one, is memory loss (also known as amnesia). In the majority of cases, people who dissociate do not remember long passages of time, in the DSM-5 this is described as “recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting”. Due to this amnesia, they will also have a blurred sense of their personality and a sense of being detached from themselves and their emotions. Moreover, the DSM-5 states that the disturbance should not be a normal part of a broadly accepted religious practice or attributable to any physiological effects of a substance (American Psychiatric Association 2013). Usually, DID is also accompanied by other mental health problems like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

One of the most frequent questions when it comes to dissociative identity disorder is treatment related: is there a cure? There does not exist a specific pharmacological treatment for DID. Even though there is medication that treats some of the symptoms that are likely to occur, such as depression or anxiety, the most effective treatment is psychotherapy(Brand, B., & Loewenstein, R. J. 2010). In this case, the therapy should be focused on identifying and working on the past trauma, managing the behavioral changes and merging the separate identities into a single one. In some cases, hypnotherapy is also recommended. This is a form of guided meditation that helps recover repressed memories. However, a definitive cure does not exist, the above-mentioned treatments are mainly able to reduce the symptoms. Nonetheless, people do learn to have more control over their behavior and live with their difficulties. Therefore, having a secure support system is very important for people suffering from DID.


Brand, B., & Loewenstein, R. J. (2010). Dissociative disorders: An overview of assessment, phenomenology, and treatment. Psychiatric Times, 27(10), 62-69.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Dissociative Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Keys, Daniel. 1981. The Minds of Billy Milligan. Random House.

Howell, F. Elizabeth. n.d. Understanding and Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Relational Approach. Routledge. n.d. “Alters in Dissociative Identity Disorder (MPD) and DDNOS.”

Cleveland Clinic medical professional. 2021. “Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder).” Cleveland Clinic (blog). May 25, 2021.

Dorahy, Martin J, Bethany L Brand, and Vedat Şar. 2014. “Dissociative Identity Disorder: An Empirical Overview” 48 (5): 402–17.

Mayo Clinic Staff. 2017. “Dissociative Disorders.” Mayo Clinic (blog). November 17, 2017., Keri. 2021. “What Is Dissociation?” WebMD (blog). June 28, 2021.

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On the shoulders of giants: speaking with the founder of psyCH

How did you end up founding psyCH?
All the way back in 2002 the Fachschaftsvorstand in Bern sent an e-mail to all students inviting them to some Psychology Student Congress in Turkey. Like everyone else I first ignored the e-mail. The acronym EFPSA (European Federation of Psychology Students) sounded too scary.

Then there was another e-mail saying something like “so far nobody wants to go, but it’s a unique chance”. I remember telling my friend Sven Gross during a break “why is nobody going there, it sounds great”. He asked me “Why aren’t we going?”. And so we ended up going.

That decision changed our lives completely.  I met the girl who is now my wife at the congress. We’re expecting our third child! 
Needless to say it was a crazy experience, so eye opening! We soon realized that Switzerland was not yet a member of EFPSA, in part because there was no Swiss national organisation for psychology students.
We immediately decided to found psyCH to solve that problem.
On the way home from Turkey, Sven and I had the first brainstorming session for the new organization.

What were your initial goals?
The goal was EFPSA membership, everything else came later.

How many members were there in the beginning?
Sven and I found Miriam Lörtscher in Bern, with whom we set out the general plan. Then we went recruiting in Fribourg, Zürich and Basel and found highly motivated people there. If I remember correctly, those were the people that were present when we officially founded the organization in the dome room of the Uni Bern main building.

When did you start to understand the scope of your achievement?
I felt really proud when psyCH joined EFPSA in 2004 and I felt very proud when we were personally invited to the 10 year psyCH anniversary in 2013. We tried to create something that would stand the test of time, but we also knew that keeping such organizations alive wasn’t easy. I’m very happy to see that psyCH is alive and well  today, almost 20 years later.

What are your thoughts on the current state of psyCH?
I follow as much as I can, it’s cool to see that many things like the psyPra and the always highly successful psyKo still exist! I guess some things changed, and I’m sure some things were improved over the years. I’m no longer familiar with the organisational structure of psyCH, but the mere fact that it’s still around certainly means something. Overall I’m very happy to see that psyCH still exists.

Any words of advice for the current psyCH team?
No, I’m sure I’d have a lot to say if somebody asked me something specific. But the fact that psyCH is still around shows that capable people are in charge, and no advice is needed!

How has your role in psyCH shaped your life ?
It has completely changed my life on many levels. Founding psyCH gave me a great deal of self-confidence and self-efficacy and in the process I got the chance to hone my leadership skills. I don’t think I would be an entrepreneur today if it wasn’t for this journey. And of course, I live in Estonia now and I am married to the Secretary Treasurer of EFPSA in 2001-2002.

What is your favourite memory from when you were a part of psyCH?
There are just too many to list them all here, but surely it’s something to do with an EFPSA Congress. Maybe something like this picture of our delegation at the cultural evening at the EFPSA Congress 2004 in Kopaonik, Serbia.