Founded in 1998, the Depersonalisation Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry was the first in its field. Now the team describe their progress in the development of cognitive-behavioural and pharmacological treatments.
Depersonalisation is a psychiatric condition characterised by an alteration in the perception and experience of the self (Mellor, 1988). It was first described in the scientific literature over one hundred years ago (for a historical review see Sierra & Berrios, 1997) and has a prevalence in the general population that has been estimated to be as high as 3 per cent (Trueman, 1984). Imagine being constantly out of touch with your own feelings and senses: this is similar to depersonalisation disorder. Sufferers of this disorder experience a sense of unreality and detachment from various aspects of themselves, which manifests itself as a sense of disconnection from one’s own body, cognition or affective state (DSM-IV: APA, 1994). Clinical sufferers sometimes self-mutilate in an attempt to ‘feel’ themselves, such is the severity of the condition. Whilst depersonalisation can occur as a primary symptom (Ballard et al., 1992), it can also occur as secondary to neurological conditions such as epilepsy or Ménière’s disease. It is also sometimes seen in conjunction with other psychiatric conditions, such as panic disorder, depression, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder (Sedman & Kenna, 1963; Sedman & Reed, 1963). In addition, depersonalisation can occur in healthy individuals after taking drugs such as cannabis or Ecstasy (McGuire et al., 1994; Szymanski, 1981) and has been reported during ‘near-death’ experiences (Noyes et al., 1976). Surprisingly, there have been few contemporary investigations into depersonalisation and fewer still into the development of possible treatments. This lack of study led to the establishment in 1998 of the Depersonalisation Research Unit at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Its mission statement was twofold. First, to initiate research into the disorder; secondly, to develop effective treatment strategies, both pharmacological and psychological. In addition, collection and dissemination of information about depersonalisation is carried out. This is done through the unit’s website (see Weblinks box) and through an information sheet that is sent to sufferers and clinical practitioners alike.
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