Published online Oct 19, 2019. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v9.i6.83
Peer-review started: April 12, 2019
First decision: June 6, 2019
Revised: July 3, 2019
Accepted: August 21, 2019
Article in press: August 21, 2019
Published online: October 19, 2019
Dissociation, which is defined as the failure to associate consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior into an integrated whole, has long been assumed to be generated by trauma. If dissociation is a product of trauma exposure, then dissociation would be a major mental health outcome observed in studies of disaster survivors. Although some studies have examined dissociation in disasters, no systematic literature reviews have been conducted to date on the topic.
To systematically evaluate the literature on the association between disaster and dissociation to determine the prevalence and incidence of dissociation after exposure to disaster and further examine their relationship.
EMBASE, Medline, and PsychINFO were searched from inception to January 1, 2019 to identify studies examining dissociative disorders or symptoms related to a disaster in adult or child disaster survivors and disaster responders. Studies of military conflicts and war, articles not in English, and those with samples of 30 or more participants were excluded. Search terms used were “disaster*” and dissociation (“dissociat*,” “multiple personality,” “fugue,” “psychogenic amnesia,” “derealization,” and “depersonalization”). Reference lists of identified articles were scrutinized to identify studies for additional articles.
The final number of articles in the review was 53, including 36 articles with samples of adults aged 18 and above, 5 of children/adolescents under age 18, and 12 of disaster workers. Included articles studied several types of disasters that occurred between 1989 and 2017, more than one-third (38%) from the United States. Only two studies had a primary aim to investigate dissociation in relation to disaster and none reported data on dissociative disorders. All of the studies used self-report symptom scales; none used structured interviews providing full diagnostic assessment of dissociative disorders or other psychopathology. Several studies mixed exposed and unexposed samples or did not differentiate outcomes between exposure groups. Studies examining associations between dissociation and disaster exposure have been inconclusive. The majority (75%) of the studies compared dissociation with posttraumatic stress, with inconsistent findings. Dissociation was found to be associated with a wide range of other psychiatric disorders, symptoms, and negative emotional, cognitive, and functional states.
The studies reviewed had serious methodological limitations including problems with measurement of psychopathology, sampling, and generation of unwarranted conclusions, precluding conclusions that dissociation is an established outcome of disaster.
Core tip: Almost all existing studies of dissociation in relation to disaster have not focused specifically on this purpose but rather on the relationship of dissociation to other disaster outcomes. Instead of dissociative disorders, broadly defined dissociative phenomena have been examined in disaster survivors. The literature uniformly contains unsurmountable methodological limitations such as reliance on nondiagnostic dissociation measures, lack of temporal specificity to postdisaster time frames, and problems with disaster exposure issues pertaining to sampling, measurement, and analysis. It cannot be concluded from the research that dissociation is an established outcome of disasters.