Dissociative identity disorder (DID) was formerly referred to as multiple personality disorder until 1994, when the name changed to denote a clearer understanding of the disorder. It is currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as dissociative identity disorder and is described as a disruption of identity that is characterized by two or more distinct personality states or an experience of possession. Psychology Today defines dissociative identity disorder as a “rare condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual.” An individual that has been diagnosed with DID has essentially failed to integrate various aspects of his or her identity, memory and/ or consciousness into a single multidimensional self. The DSM-5 has reported over seventy percent of individuals diagnosed with DID have attempted suicide at least once in their life, and self-harming behavior is highly common among individuals with DID.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that places significant emphasis on the psychosocial aspects of treatment. Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan developed DBT in the late 1980s to better treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT is currently not only the most heavily relied upon method of treatment for individuals diagnosed with BPD, but has also proven to be effective in treating other mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, anxiety, substance use disorder (SUD) and more. Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on providing therapeutic skills in the following four modules:

  • Mindfulness: the practice of being wholly aware in the present moment
  • Distress Tolerance: learning strategies to tolerate pain in difficult situations instead of trying to change and/ or avoid it
  • Interpersonal effectiveness: focuses on skills that enable an individual the ability to communicate with others in a way that is assertive, maintains self-respect and simultaneously strengthens his or her relationships
  • Emotion regulation: learning how techniques to shift and change unwanted emotions

DBT is comprised of two therapeutic formats: individual psychotherapy sessions and DBT skills group sessions. Individual therapy sessions provide one-on-one therapeutic attention to provide customized treatment and focus in the nuanced mental health needs of the individual. They are also a place for individuals to further process and practice implementing the skills learned during the DBT skill group sessions. Individual therapy sessions are often held once a week for the duration of the DBT program. A trained mental health provider holds the DBT skills group sessions once a week. The leader teaches the DBT skills, facilities group exercises and assigns homework to be completed outside of the group sessions. Participants are often encouraged to share their experiences and provide mutual support to the other group members. The DBT skills group sessions offer participants the ability to learn and practice new skills alongside other individuals that are working on similar issues.

Can DBT Treat Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Every individual is different and will respond distinctly to the variety of mental health treatment options available. The first step in securing mental health treatment is to be properly diagnosed by a qualified mental health provider. It is imperative to obtain an accurate diagnosis when it comes to mental health illnesses, as one’s diagnosis greatly informs his or her methods for treatment. An individual diagnosed with DID should seek immediate mental health treatment to assist in managing its symptoms. Many individuals will require tailored treatment plans that incorporate a variety of therapeutic modalities when it comes to DID. This helps to ensure all nuanced mental health needs of the individual are fully addressed. For example, it is not uncommon for an individual with DID to experience the feeling of becoming suddenly detached from his or her body, speech and/ or actions. 

Research has noted that the distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills can reduce impulsive behaviors that occur from DID. Additionally, due to the fact that suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviors are so widely spread in the DID population, often certain components of dialectical behavior therapy are frequently integrated into treatment plans that are developed by a mental health clinician working with an individual diagnosed with DID. However, traditional DBT focuses on treating the whole person as a single individual and does not recognize nor acknowledge the presence of dissociative identities. Although this aspect of DBT can be harmful to one’s treatment process, the ultimate goal of DBT is to shift negative thinking patterns and destructive behaviors into positive outcomes.