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Depersonalisation Disorder: NHS Treatment

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

In the 2017 Christmas Adjournment debate I spoke about depersonalisation disorder, or DPD. I told something of the story of my constituent Jane, and requested a meeting to discuss NHS treatment of DPD. Since then the Minister has kindly met with me, Jane and Dr Elaine Hunter, a leading DPD clinician. The meeting was very sympathetic and I thank the Minister for that. We agreed that we would follow it up with a short Westminster Hall debate, to speak publicly about why the issue is so important. I shall therefore take the opportunity to talk about depersonalisation and put a couple of what I hope are gentle asks on the table.

What is depersonalisation? DPD can be triggered by a traumatic experience, a panic attack, stress or, indeed, drug use. It is a fairly common psychological or mental process for dealing with trauma. It feels as if the mind is detaching from the body; those affected feel as if they are outside themselves. Everything feels rather unreal. I have certainly felt that way before, at a time of significant and severe stress. However, depersonalisation is an intensified version of the feeling, and it is not temporary. It sets in indefinitely. When people have DPD it will often be accompanied by the sensation of noticing themselves as if from the outside, as if they are a character on a screen—almost as a character in the play of their life. The feeling can be so strong that those who have DPD are less aware of their bodily sensations, such as their heartbeat.

DPD is different from a psychosis such as schizophrenia because people who have it are aware that the experience is subjective, and not something changing in the world around them. A common difficulty for those with DPD is putting the experience into words. Many use metaphors or similes, comparing their experience to watching a TV screen. They may use adjectives such as “fuzzy” or “blurry” to describe how they feel. The lack of awareness of the condition, combined with the difficulty in communicating the precise symptoms, is the reason why many are repeatedly misdiagnosed.

I was present on the previous occasion when the hon. Lady raised this subject. I was quite alarmed when I did some research on the disorder that she has described. I am sure that she knows the figures. According to studies in the United Kingdom and the United States, DPD affects some 2% of the population—1.3 million people in the United Kingdom and 6.4 million in the US. The hon. Lady is clearly raising awareness today, but is there a greater need to raise awareness among GPs, to make sure that they can make early diagnoses, and understand and respond to the condition?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to talk later in my speech about how many people experience the condition, and about other conditions that similar numbers of people are diagnosed with but that are far more common and have more resources from the NHS. I will go on to argue that DPD is fairly significant, given the number of people affected, and that more resources and effort are needed to assist them.

Many sufferers, as I mentioned, are misdiagnosed— often for years on end. Often when someone with depersonalisation disorder is misdiagnosed they are given medication, which can either have little effect or be quite harmful. Naming the symptoms and people understanding what has happened to them can be an important experience. Understanding the condition and putting a name to what they have can make someone feel an awful lot better. My constituent Jane Charlton struggled terribly before she was diagnosed. She imagined that she might have a degenerative disease, or that she might be dying. Learning the name of the condition was a crucial step in understanding it, living with it and eventually learning ways of dealing with it.

The onset of DPD was triggered for Jane by cannabis use. She was just 18, on holiday with a boyfriend, and had smoked cannabis only once before. Her boyfriend prepared her some cannabis resin and mixed it into a yoghurt. Jane tried a little—no impact; so she tried a bit more. She describes what happened next:

“My perception drew back into my head, almost as though I was now looking at the world from the back of my own eye sockets. I perceived a delay between an external event, and my brain understanding or processing it. Suddenly there was a fracture between the world and me. While my body was still in the world, my mind had become a disengaged observer.”

As I said, in DPD the individual is aware that their perception has changed, so although the experience feels like a blurring or a distancing, for Jane it was terrifying:

“During that first episode…hours followed where I sought reassurance from those around me, wanting to touch and talk to them constantly. I wanted to check that I still existed. Eventually, exhausted, I slept, in the hope that it would pass overnight. It didn’t. The next morning, the shift in perception remained, and would in fact remain for every second of every day for the next three years.”

A temporary experience of depersonalisation can serve as a defence mechanism if there is a traumatic event. It allows separation from immediate reality, but if it spreads beyond that and becomes depersonalisation disorder, people such as Jane can become separated from other emotions as well:

“If I quieten my mind, I can almost taste the colour and richness of life as I knew it before...but I can barely remember what it feels like. These days I’m in a constant state of grief; I feel as if I’m grieving for my own death, even if I seem to be around to witness it.”

It is hard to imagine the impact that that would have on a young person’s life, for those of us who have not felt it. For three years, in Jane’s case, there was no diagnosis and no remedy. Even with the right diagnosis DPD is hard to treat. Jane has had four major episodes of depersonalisation disorder, despite all her hard work, often with experts in the field. Her current episode is ongoing, and entering its fifth year.

Another person who has depersonalisation is Joe Perkins. He runs a YouTube channel called the “DPD Diaries”, which is a wonderful accessible resource for learning about the condition. Joe told me he has had about 100 medical appointments over the past 10 years, but he can count on one hand the number of professionals who had actually heard of the condition. His diagnosis took 10 years. Sadly, that is a normal length of time in the NHS at the moment. He had 10 years living with DPD and not understanding that it was a recognised medical condition and he was not on his own. He explained his experience of the condition:

“The most difficult thing for me to deal with day to day is a complete lack of emotions. I experience neither happiness or sadness; life seems completely flat; and it’s very difficult to feel motivated for anything when everything feels meaningless. Having to explain to your partner that you’re unable to feel love for them is an incredibly difficult conversation to have—and one that naturally puts a huge strain on any relationship.”

I am sure we can all understand that.

Joe first started experiencing symptoms while he was studying for A-levels, when he was too young to be eligible for treatment at the Maudsley clinic, the only facility available in the UK. Fortunately, he has since started to receive treatment. The referral took a full year, and the waiting list is long, with numbers spiralling as awareness rightly grows.

The invisibility of DPD makes it all the more important that we speak about it in this place, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity today to do just that. Just a few facts will show that depersonalisation and derealisation—a closely related condition—are an urgent concern and need far better treatment under the NHS.

First, depersonalisation and derealisation have symptoms that many of us will find familiar; 75% of us will have experiences similar to depersonalisation at some point in our lives. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, between 1% and 2.4% of people are likely to have these conditions—a similar level to bipolar disorder, which is far better understood and resourced, and which our GPs and experts are able to spot.

Thirdly, it is important to know that there is only one small clinic in the UK that specialises in treating the condition and, as I have said, it does not treat people under the age of 18, despite the fact that sufferers from depersonalisation disorder typically have their first experience of it in their adolescence. Finally, and rather damningly, the average diagnosis takes between eight and 12 years from the point of symptoms appearing. Those are the facts I have received.

I have talked about what DPD is, what it feels like, and the fact that it is very poorly known, which helps to explain the almost unbelievable figure of eight to 12 years to diagnosis. How debilitating DPD can be is the most important thing to understand, but the lack of provision is extremely important, too. We have a lot of work to do if we are to build the same scale and quality of NHS support for those with DPD as for those with depression or bipolar disorder.

I pay tribute to Jane for all the work she has done on this issue. She is a brave woman. She featured in an article in The Guardian in 2015, which reached a huge number of people. In 2017, she followed that up with an appearance on the Victoria Derbyshire programme. During the programme, several people called the show to say that Jane had helped them to recognise their own condition.

Jane continues to raise awareness through lobbying—she lobbied me—and runs a peer support group for people suffering from DPD, so they can experience solidarity and share experiences. She has also founded a charity called Unreal, to unify all the different bits of work being done. Jane has done all of that while holding down a full-time job and dealing with her own DPD. She has my absolute respect and gratitude for that. Jane’s work is really helping, but we need to go so much further to spread awareness not only among members of the public, but among NHS professionals.

As I said at the start, Jane, Dr Hunter and I have already met the Minister, and I am hopeful that she will be able to tell us more about what action is already being taken, but I would like to use this opportunity to put on record our four asks. All of them can be accomplished within the next few years, and none, we think, would require huge investment of resources.

First, on training, a 2017 edition of The BMJ published new guidance on the assessment and management of DPD. That was very welcome, but it has not led, and will not lead, to better and faster diagnosis and treatment in and of itself. My first ask is that the Minister write to the presidents of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to request that they bring this information to the attention of their members and ensure that training on DPD is made part of the core training for GPs and psychiatrists.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to push for the design and delivery of a programme of training in NHS mental health trusts around the country, not only to raise awareness, but to improve assessment and management of the disorder locally. That could include the appointment of a local depersonalisation disorder lead, who can thereafter provide guidance to local clinicians.

My third request is that those leads link together to improve access to treatment for those with the condition. I think the Minister would agree that it is not good enough to have just one small clinic at the Maudsley treating all those people across the country who have depersonalisation; we need better and more. Finally, given that expert support for young people experiencing DPD simply does not exist in the NHS, I ask her to ensure that there is specialist provision in child and adolescent mental health services, so that those under 18 can receive treatment when they need it.

Those simple steps could make a difference and bring down the average diagnosis time from an absurd and unacceptable eight to 12 years. They will help to ensure that no matter where someone lives, if they go to their GP, help will be available. So many people live in silence with this largely invisible condition. We have a long way to go to guarantee effective diagnosis and treatment for them on the NHS, but these four asks, if realised, would, I hope, start us down a good path.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is also a great pleasure to respond to the debate brought by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown).

As the hon. Lady says, we have met to discuss this before, and I too extend my thanks to her constituent Jane, who has been incredibly courageous, despite living with a condition that is profoundly distressing for her to manage, in none the less using that in such a positive way. Frankly, the most important thing we can all do is to raise awareness of this disorder, and she is doing that beautifully and is incredibly articulate in how she does it. I pay absolute tribute to her; she has certainly put the disorder on my radar, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it in the House and do our bit to raise awareness, because, as the hon. Lady has mentioned, eight to 12 years before getting a diagnosis is not good enough.

The reason people wait so long is that this is a disorder that is not understood, but it is also fair to say that many personality disorders are misunderstood. We tend to lump mental ill health and disorders together, but they require to be treated in very different ways. Often, when it comes to disorders, medication is not the best solution, so it is important that we get diagnosis right and the way we will do that is by raising awareness of what is, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, a very common condition. Many of us may have had out-of-body experiences when we are going through something unpleasant, because that is how the body naturally copes with trauma, but when people are going through sustained trauma, as many sufferers of DPD have, it becomes a way of dealing with life.

The worst thing, as the hon. Member for West Ham highlighted, is that that can often be brought on by drug use. I do not think we should be squeamish about mentioning that. We have a debate going on about drugs at the moment that is all about, “We have lost the war against drugs; it is all done through the lens of crime and disorder.” The reality is that the extent of cannabis use in this country is contributing to our mental health crisis—of that I have no doubt—and I do not think we should be squeamish about saying it, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that.

We must ensure we do better. Last year, I had the great privilege of chairing the women’s mental health taskforce, and I saw that we are seeing a greater scale of mental ill health being experienced by women between the ages of 16 and 24. We put trauma at the root of much of that, and we have a strategy to roll out much more trauma-informed care across the NHS, which I hope will also extend to raising greater awareness of this disorder.

The hon. Lady’s point about making GPs and practitioners more aware of this disorder during their training is very good. We—collectively, as a system—need to think what more we can do to educate the whole NHS about the difference between severe mental ill health brought on by other conditions, things that are brought on by, for example, trauma, and the whole issue of disorders. We should not just medicalise treatment through prescribing drugs but should put together wraparound support and care, giving people the tools to manage what are often debilitating conditions.

As I said, I greatly enjoyed meeting Jane and the clinicians from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust last year, where I was given a compelling presentation. We need to explore this condition more, so that we get this right. Its triggers are poorly understood but may be related to previous trauma, as we have heard.

The hon. Lady asked for more support through CAMHS. A lot of this trauma starts and is sustained in childhood. An important tool in spreading awareness of this disorder will be the new children’s mental health teams that will go out into schools. We are looking for mental health leads within schools to refer children that they sense are having difficulties, so that we can intervene early to support them. We know that the longer people live with this ongoing trauma, the harder it is for them to manage. Without going into individual cases, because it is very distressing for the people involved, I am certainly aware of cases of adults now living with this disorder having gone through sustained trauma in childhood. We clearly need to find a way of dealing with that.

We have come a long way in breaking down mental health stigma and raising awareness of different conditions, but I repeat that there is a real lack of awareness about disorders. We now talk broadly about bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, but do people really know what they mean? I do not think so. We need to spin our education around that. As the hon. Lady mentioned, at the moment only one clinic specialises in this disorder. Partly because of the lack of awareness, it is fair to say that the research evidence on what works to treat this disorder is still at a very early stage. Obviously, the NHS will support further investment in those treatments based on evidence. We lack National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines for the treatment of DPD. That must be on the do-to list.

Essential to that support will be finding out more about this disorder. This is a learning process for everyone, and people like Jane obviously contribute massively, but it is for clinicians and researchers to do their best and really get to grips with what will be required. I acknowledge the world-class work being undertaken at the Maudsley clinic, which is one of the leading research and clinical treatment units in the world for this condition. It has pioneered an incredible service, which Jane praised to the hilt for what it has done for her health. It really works to improve health outcomes for patients and is dedicated to expanding the understanding and treatment of depersonalisation through its research, which I encourage, because further research is vital to improving our understanding of the prevalence of this condition and its treatment.

The Maudsley clinic has successfully assessed more than 500 people since the inception of its service, which is amazing, but as 2% of people suffer from it, there is more to do. It also works closely with the research unit at King’s College London, which adds to that understanding. Clearly, waiting nine to 12 months for therapy after diagnosis is not good enough, so I am pleased to say that the Department held an initial roundtable meeting at the end of last year to hear about the work of the service provided by the trust and to discuss current research into those treatments and suggestions on NHS management of the condition. We look forward to taking that work forward. We also discussed options for next steps with the Maudsley clinic, including its applying for a development grant from the mental health policy research unit of the National Institute for Health Research.

I understand that the team at the specialised unit at the Maudsley clinic has faced challenges in acquiring such funding in the past. It is tricky: we need evidence to get the money for research, but money for research is needed to feed the evidence. I completely understand that. However, I say to the hon. Lady that the Department’s research team will discuss with the unit the most appropriate type of research funding for it to bid for. Clearly, we want to make sure that we make the most of its expertise and expand our understanding of this condition. I hope that that brings some reassurance. I look forward to seeing further developments in this space.

As always, I am delighted by what the Minister has offered us, especially on research, which is fantastic. I thank her for that. However, I would not be me if I did not press her on the three things on my list that she has not mentioned—writing to the presidents of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, introducing a programme of training for mental health trusts and improving access to treatment for under-18s. I am happy for the Minister to write to me on those.

I would like to take that away and discuss with the NHS clinical lead how best to do those. I agree with the hon. Lady, but I will look at this in the broader context of disorders and really getting that understanding of severe mental health conditions and ongoing disorders, which need different tools. However, I will write to the hon. Lady, and I know that we will continue to have dialogue on this issue.

In conclusion, I readily acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done to support people with this disorder and to help them to make a full recovery with treatment and support. I assure the House that that is very much on my to-do list. I look forward to having further dialogue with the hon. Lady and Jane, who I wish every success in managing her condition. I hope I have provided sufficient reassurance that we are committed to doing what we can for these people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.