Skip to main content

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



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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Baker D, Hunter E, Lawrence E, Medford N, Patel M, Senior C, Sierra M, Lambert MV, Phillips ML, David AS (2003) Depersonalisation disorder: clinical features of 204 cases. Br J Psychiatry 182:428–433

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Sierra M, Gomez J, Molina JJ, Luque R, Munoz JF, David AS (2006) Depersonalization in psychiatric patients: a transcultural study. J Nerv Ment Dis 194(5):356–361. doi:10.1097/01.nmd.0000218071.32072.74

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Hunter EC, Sierra M, David AS (2004) The epidemiology of depersonalisation and derealisation. A systematic review. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 39(1):9–18. doi:10.1007/s00127-004-0701-4

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    World Health Organization (1992) The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. World Health Organization, Geneva

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV, 4th edn. American Psychiatric Association, Washington D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Bebbington P, Hurry J, Tennant C, Sturt E, Wing JK (1981) Epidemiology of mental disorders in Camberwell. Psychol Med 11(3):561–579

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Bebbington PE, Marsden L, Brewin CR (1997) The need for psychiatric treatment in the general population: the Camberwell Needs for Care Survey. Psychol Med 27(4):821–834

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Johnson JG, Cohen P, Kasen S, Brook JS (2006) Dissociative disorders among adults in the community, impaired functioning, and axis I and II comorbidity. J Psychiatr Res 40(2):131–140. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2005.03.003

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Michal M, Wiltink J, Subic-Wrana C, Zwerenz R, Tuin I, Lichy M, Brahler E, Beutel ME (2009) Prevalence, correlates, and predictors of depersonalization experiences in the German general population. J Nerv Ment Dis 197(7):499–506. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181aacd94

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Ross CA (1991) Epidemiology of multiple personality disorder and dissociation. Psychiatr Clin North Am 14(3):503–517

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Aderibigbe YA, Bloch RM, Walker WR (2001) Prevalence of depersonalization and derealization experiences in a rural population. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 36(2):63–69

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Sierra-Siegert M, David AS (2007) Depersonalization and individualism: the effect of culture on symptom profiles in panic disorder. J Nerv Ment Dis 195(12):989–995. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e31815c19f7

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Simeon D, Gross S, Guralnik O, Stein DJ, Schmeidler J, Hollander E (1997) Feeling unreal: 30 cases of DSM-III-R depersonalization disorder. Am J Psychiatry 154(8):1107–1113

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Lambert MV, Senior C, Fewtrell WD, Phillips ML, David AS (2001) Primary and secondary depersonalisation disorder: a psychometric study. J Affect Disord 63(1–3):249–256 pii:S016503270000197X

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Sierra M, Lopera F, Lambert MV, Phillips ML, David AS (2002) Separating depersonalisation and derealisation: the relevance of the “lesion method”. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 72(4):530–532

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Medford N, Baker D, Hunter E, Sierra M, Lawrence E, Phillips ML, David AS (2003) Chronic depersonalization following illicit drug use: a controlled analysis of 40 cases. Addiction 98(12):1731–1736

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    McGuire PK, Cope H, Fahy TA (1994) Diversity of psychopathology associated with use of 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘Ecstasy’). Br J Psychiatry 165(3):391–395

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Mayou R, Bryant B (2001) Outcome in consecutive emergency department attenders following a road traffic accident. Br J Psychiatry 179:528–534

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Noyes R Jr, Kletti R (1977) Depersonilization in response to life-threatening danger. Compr Psychiatry 18(4):375–384

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Chu JA, Dill DL (1990) Dissociative symptoms in relation to childhood physical and sexual abuse. Am J Psychiatry 147(7):887–892

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Neumann DA, Houskamp BM, Pollock VE, Briere J (1996) The long-term sequelae of childhood sexual abuse in women: a meta-analytic review. Child Maltreat 1(1):6–16. doi:10.1177/1077559596001001002

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Simeon D, Abugel J (2006) Feeling unreal: depersonalization disorder and the loss of the self. OUP, New York

  23. 23.

    Schilder P (1914) Selbstbewusstsein und Persönlichkeitsbewusstsein. Monographien aus dem Gesamtgebiete der Neurologie und Psychiatrie., Heft 9. Berlin

  24. 24.

    Michal M, Beutel ME, Jordan J, Zimmermann M, Wolters S, Heidenreich T (2007) Depersonalization, mindfulness, and childhood trauma. J Nerv Ment Dis 195(8):693–696. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e31811f4492

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Simeon D, Guralnik O, Schmeidler J, Sirof B, Knutelska M (2001) The role of childhood interpersonal trauma in depersonalization disorder. Am J Psychiatry 158(7):1027–1033

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Elliott GC, Rosenberg M, Wagner M (1984) Transient depersonalization in youth. Soc Psychol Q 47(2):115–129

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Salfield DJ (1958) Depersonalization and allied disturbances in childhood. J Ment Sci 104(435):472–476

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Shimizu M, Sakamoto S (1986) Depersonalization in early adolescence. Jpn J Psychiatry Neurol 40(4):603–608

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sierra M, Baker D, Medford N, David AS (2005) Unpacking the depersonalization syndrome: an exploratory factor analysis on the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale. Psychol Med 35(10):1523–1532. doi:10.1017/S0033291705005325

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Roth M (1960) The phobic anxiety-depersonalization syndrome and some general aetiological problems in psychiatry. J Neuropsychiatr 1:293–306

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Hunter EC, Phillips ML, Chalder T, Sierra M, David AS (2003) Depersonalisation disorder: a cognitive-behavioural conceptualisation. Behav Res Ther 41(12):1451–1467 pii:S0005796703000664

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Wadsworth M, Kuh D, Richards M, Hardy R (2006) Cohort profile: the 1946 National Birth Cohort (MRC National Survey of Health and Development). Int J Epidemiol 35(1):49–54. doi:10.1093/ije/dyi201

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    CS OP (1971) Office of population censuses and surveys. Classification of occupations 1970. HMSO, London

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Department of Education and Science (1972) Burnham further education committee grading courses. HMSO, London

  35. 35.

    Wing J, Nixon J, von Cranach M, Strauss A (1977) Further developments of the ‘present state examination’ and CATEGO system. Arch Psychiatr Nervenkr 224(2):151–160

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Wing JK, Cooper JE, Sartorius N (1974) The measurement of classification of psychiatric symptoms. An instruction manual for the PSE and Catego Program. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Wing JK, Sturt E (1978) The PSE-ID-CATEGO system: a supplementary manual. Institute of Psychiatry, London (mimeo)

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Rodgers B, Mann SA (1986) The reliability and validity of PSE assessments by lay interviewers: a national population survey. Psychol Med 16(3):689–700

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Wing J, Cooper J, Sartorius N (1974) The measurement and classification of psychiatric symptoms. Cambridge University Press, London

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    World Health Organization (1992) SCAN: schedules for clinical assessment in neuropsychiatry. World Health Organization, Geneva

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Sierra M, Berrios GE (2000) The Cambridge Depersonalization Scale: a new instrument for the measurement of depersonalization. Psychiatry Res 93(2):153–164 pii:S0165178100001001

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Ross CA, Joshi S, Currie R (1991) Dissociative experiences in the general population: a factor analysis. Hosp Community Psychiatry 42(3):297–301

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Ross CA, Heber S, Norton GR, Anderson D, Anderson G, Barchet P (1989) The dissociative disorders interview schedule: a structured interview. Dissociation 2(3):169–189

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Bremner JD, Steinberg M, Southwick SM, Johnson DR, Charney DS (1993) Use of the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV dissociative disorders for systematic assessment of dissociative symptoms in posttraumatic stress disorder. Am J Psychiatry 150(7):1011–1014

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Simeon D, Kozin DS, Segal K, Lerch B (2009) Is depersonalization disorder initiated by illicit drug use any different? A survey of 394 adults. J Clin Psychiatry 70(10):1358–1364. doi:10.4088/JCP.08m04370

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Simeon D, Knutelska M, Nelson D, Guralnik O (2003) Feeling unreal: a depersonalization disorder update of 117 cases. J Clin Psychiatry 64(9):990–997

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Wadsworth M (1992) Loss and representativeness in a 43 year follow up of a national birth cohort. J Epidemiol Community Health 46:300–304

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Wadsworth ME, Butterworth SL, Hardy RJ, Kuh DJ, Richards M, Langenberg C, Hilder WS, Connor M (2003) The life course prospective design: an example of benefits and problems associated with study longevity. Soc Sci Med 57(11):2193–2205

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Hotopf M, Carr S, Mayou R, Wadsworth M, Wessely S (1998) Why do children have chronic abdominal pain, and what happens to them when they grow up? Population based cohort study. Br Med J 316(7139):1196–1200

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Lee WE, Wadsworth ME, Hotopf M (2006) The protective role of trait anxiety: a longitudinal cohort study. Psychol Med 36(3):345–351

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Neeleman J (1998) Predictors of suicide, accidental death and premature natural death in a general-population birth cohort. Lancet 351:9098

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Richards M, Abbott R (2009) Childhood mental health and life chances in post-war Britain. Accessed 6th June 2010

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to William E. Lee.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation


  • Depersonalization
  • Prevalence
  • Population
  • Childhood
  • Anxiety