Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 253–261 | Cite as

Prevalence and childhood antecedents of depersonalization syndrome in a UK birth cohort

  • William E. LeeEmail author
  • Charlie H. T. Kwok
  • Elaine C. M. Hunter
  • Marcus Richards
  • Anthony S. David
Original Paper



Depersonalization syndrome is characterised by a sense of unreality about the self [depersonalization (DP)] and/or the outside world [derealization (DR)]. Prevalence estimates vary widely. Little is known about childhood antecedents of the disorder although emotional abuse is thought to play a role.


Longitudinal data from 3,275 participants of a UK population-based birth cohort (the MRC National Survey of Health and Development) were used to: (1) assess the prevalence of DP syndrome at age 36, measured by the Present State Examination (PSE); and (2) examine the effects of a range of socio-demographic, childhood adversity and emotional responses as potential risk factors for DP.


Thirty three survey members were classified with DP, yielding a prevalence of 0.95% [95% confidence intervals (CI) 0.56–1.34]. There were no associations with socio-economic status, parental death or divorce; self-reported accidents, childhood depression, tendency to daydream or reactions to criticism. However, teacher-estimated childhood anxiety was a strong independent predictor of adult depersonalization, and there were strong cross-sectional relationships between DP and anxiety and depression caseness.


To our knowledge this is the first study assessing nationwide prevalence of the DP syndrome and uses longitudinal data to explore childhood risk factors for adult DP. The prevalence of adult DP was slightly lower than reported by other surveys. The study found that childhood anxiety was the only significant predictor of the adult DP syndrome, supporting the view that depersonalisation disorder forms part of the spectrum of responses to anxiety.


Depersonalization Prevalence Population Childhood Anxiety 



A.S.D. acknowledges financial support from the Department of Health via the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Specialist Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health award to South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. W.E.L. is funded by a Medical Research Council Training Fellowship.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • William E. Lee
    • 1
    Email author
  • Charlie H. T. Kwok
    • 2
  • Elaine C. M. Hunter
    • 3
  • Marcus Richards
    • 4
  • Anthony S. David
    • 5
  1. 1.King’s College London, Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Weston Education CentreLondonUK
  2. 2.King’s College London, School of Biomedical and Health SciencesLondonUK
  3. 3.Maudsley HospitalLondonUK
  4. 4.MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and AgeingUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  5. 5.King’s College London, Section of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, Institute of PsychiatryLondonUK

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