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

Abstract

Purpose

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Conclusions

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.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to William E. Lee.

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Lee, W.E., Kwok, C.H.T., Hunter, E.C.M. et al. Prevalence and childhood antecedents of depersonalization syndrome in a UK birth cohort. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 47, 253–261 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-010-0327-7

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Keywords

  • Depersonalization
  • Prevalence
  • Population
  • Childhood
  • Anxiety