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Original Research

Dissociative Spectrum Disorders in the Primary Care Setting

James L. Elmore, MD

Published: April 1, 2000

Article Abstract

Dissociative disorders have a lifetime prevalence of about 10%. Dissociative symptoms may occur in acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, somatization disorder, substance abuse, trance and possession trance, Ganser’s syndrome, and dissociative identity disorder, as well as in mood disorders, psychoses, and personality disorders. Dissociative symptoms and disorders are observed frequently among patients attending our rural South Carolina community mental health center. Given the prevalence of mental illness in primary care settings and the diagnostic difficulties encountered with dissociative disorders, such illness may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in primary care settings.

We developed an intervention model that may be applicable to primary care settings or helpful to primary care physicians. Key points of the intervention are identification of dissociative symptoms, patient and family education, review of the origin of the symptoms as a method of coping with trauma, and supportive reinforcement of cognitive and relaxation skills during follow-up visits. Symptom recognition, Education of the family, Learning new skills, and Follow-up may be remembered by the mnemonic device SELF. We present several cases to illustrate dissociative symptoms and our intervention. Physicians and other professionals using the 4 steps and behavioral approaches will be able to better recognize and triage patients with dissociative symptoms. Behaviors previously thought to be secondary to psychosis or personality disorders may be seen in a new frame of reference, strengthening the therapeutic alliance while reducing distress and acting-out behaviors.

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