People respond to problems differently. Sometimes, people respond to trauma by losing part or all of their memory. In this lesson, we'll look at the symptoms, types, and treatments of dissociative amnesia.
Cat is 25 and she has a pretty happy life. She has a boyfriend and a good job, and she enjoys hiking and camping on the weekends. But below the happy surface, there's something else going on. Cat has large scars on her body that she doesn't remember getting. And last week, she was in the store and met someone who claimed to have known her when Cat was 10 years old. The woman said that she was a nurse at a hospital where Cat stayed for two weeks after a bad accident killed Cat's mom and severely injured Cat.
Cat remembers being told that her mother died in an accident, but she doesn't remember being in the accident herself. Not only that, she can't remember anything from the time that she was supposedly in the hospital.
What's going on? Cat may have dissociative amnesia, a psychological disorder that involves losing one's memory after a traumatic event. You know how people sometimes joke about blocking painful memories out? Patients with dissociative amnesia actually do block things out. Let's look closer at dissociative amnesia, including how therapists diagnose and treat it and the different types of amnesia.
Imagine that you are a psychologist and Cat comes to see you. She's upset because she can't remember the accident. You think that she might have dissociative amnesia, but you're not sure. In order to be diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, there are a few criteria that need to be met. They are:
1. Memory loss that goes beyond normal forgetfulness.
Someone with a dissociative amnesia is most likely to have memory loss related to a trauma or stressful event. Also, the memory loss is personal; if someone forgets who is president of Bolivia, it doesn't count unless they themselves are president of Bolivia.
Cat's memory loss is severe. Most people would remember an accident that killed their mother and left them in the hospital. Not only that, but what she's forgotten is part of her personal experience, not some random facts. Because her memory loss is severe, related to some kind of trauma and personal, we can check this one off.
2. It is not caused by another disorder.
There are many psychological and physical disorders that can cause memory loss. If someone has a brain tumor, for example, and loses their memory, then it is not dissociative amnesia. Similarly, amnesia is a symptom in several other dissociative disorders.
If a person meets the criteria for a different mental illness, like a dissociative disorder, then they are not diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. But there is no evidence that Cat has a medical or psychological problem that could explain the amnesia, so she meets this criterion.
3. It causes distress or impairment.
Distress is when someone is upset or angry, and impairment is anything that keeps a person from functioning normally in some part of his or her life. Since Cat is upset, she meets the criterion of distress. Based on the criteria, you can diagnose Cat with dissociative amnesia.
Just as amnesia can be a symptom of physical and psychological illness, there are many types of amnesia. Some types of amnesia that are commonly seen in dissociative patients include:
- Localized amnesia is when a person forgets everything about a short, selective period of time. For example, someone who survived a hostage situation might not remember the two hours they were held at gunpoint.
- Selective amnesia is when a person can remember some but not all the events of something that happened. For example, a person who was in a battle might remember running through the trenches but not watching her best friend shot down.
- Generalized amnesia occurs when a person does not remember anything about himself. They are a blank slate and have no memories at all.
- Continuous amnesia starts with a trauma and continues to the present time. For example, a person who was mugged two months ago might still believe that it's the day before the mugging because they can't remember the mugging or anything after it.
- Systematized amnesia is when a person blocks out memories related to a specific event or person. A college student who was raped on a date might forget anything to do with her rapist: How they met, when he asked her out and the date rape itself.
Most dissociative amnesia patients suffer from either localized or selective amnesia. Take Cat for example: She can't remember anything about the two weeks she was in the hospital after the accident. So she has localized dissociative amnesia.
As Cat's therapist, you have to figure out a way to help her cope with her amnesia. Talk therapy is usually the main focus of treatment for dissociative amnesia patients. By working with a trained mental health professional, they first learn to deal with the emotions and cognitive problems associated with the memory loss. After that, they might work to try to recover their memories and deal with the trauma that caused the amnesia in the first place.
Patients with dissociative amnesia sometimes also experience depression or anxiety. For those patients, antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication is sometimes prescribed along with talk therapy.
Dissociative amnesia involves losing one's memory in response to a traumatic event. There are many types of dissociative amnesia, including localized, selective, generalized, continuous and systematized. Talk therapy is the main treatment for dissociative amnesia, though patients who also have depression or anxiety might be prescribed medication.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to identify symptoms, types, and treatment options for individuals with dissociative amnesia.