Supporting a friend with dissociative identity disorder starts with learning more about the condition.
Living with dissociative identity disorder can be isolating. Media portrayals of the condition are often stigmatizing, making those with the disorder seem dangerous or unpredictable. This stigma, combined with the fact that only 2% of the population lives with a dissociative identity disorder, can leave many people with the condition hesitant to seek professional help or open up to loved ones.
When you learn your friend has dissociative identity disorder, your first instinct may be to feel frightened or question if they’re the person you thought they were. However, these doubts and fears are not supported. Dissociative identity disorder is a mental health condition with its roots in trauma. People with the disorder aren’t inherently threatening and are just as deserving and capable of love and compassion as everyone else.
Learning more about this condition can help you understand what your loved one is going through and teach you how to support someone with dissociative identity disorder. Educating yourself can help you avoid adding to the trauma your friend is likely already coping with and increase the likelihood they will seek professional therapy.
What It’s Like to Live With Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder, once called multiple personality disorder, is a posttraumatic developmental disorder characterized by the presence of one or more unintegrated parts of themselves, typically referred to as “alters.” These alters are part of a greater system that makes up the individual. While some of these alters may be aware of each other, others may have no concept of the different personalities and may have completely different beliefs, ideas and maturity levels. People often have difficulty remembering events while other alters are present. Certain circumstances and feelings may trigger alters to emerge, or alters may agree on a switch.
Alters are thought to be created by a mental process that disconnects a person from their memories, thoughts and sense of identity, known as dissociation. Often, the mind experiences dissociation in an attempt to survive, cope with and protect a person from severe physical, sexual or emotional trauma. People experience this trauma in childhood in most cases of dissociative identity disorder.
What Are the Common Signs of Switching in DID?
Recognizing when your friend switches can help you respond more positively. You’ll be able to prepare yourself or understand what is happening. This can help with the feeling of being caught off guard or startled. Common signs of switching include:
- Rapid changes in mood
- Sudden behavioral changes
- Zoning out
- Change in facial expression
- Memory loss
- Clearing throat
- Gaining or losing skills or abilities
- Avoiding eye contact
- Change in speech pattern or vocabulary
- Slowed blinking
How To Support a Friend With Dissociative Identity Disorder
While it can be challenging to know how to act toward someone with dissociative identity disorder, making an effort to understand your friend’s experiences and seek advice is a great first step.
A few key ways you can help someone with dissociative identity disorder include:
1. Stay Calm During Switches
In many cases, switching between alters happens very subtly. However, sometimes the change can be more dramatic and disorienting. One moment you’re talking to your friend, and the next, it’s as if an entirely different person is inhabiting their body. While this situation may be stressful and surprising, remaining level headed and meeting your friend where they are mentally can be enormously helpful. As confusing as witnessing a switch can be for an outsider, it’s often even more upsetting for the person experiencing it, especially if they are met with hostility or fear.
2. Learn How To Recognize and Avoid Triggers
For people with dissociative identity disorder, personality shifts are brought on by “triggers,” or external stimuli that cause them to switch between alters. Individuals with this condition may be triggered by anything that elicits a strong emotional response, including specific places, smells, sounds, senses of touch, times of the year or large groups of people. These triggers are highly individual and can differ dramatically depending on the trauma that caused a person to develop dissociative identity disorder. Your job is to find out what triggers your friend — asking them directly or observing their behavior — and help them avoid those triggers when possible.
3. Take Care of Yourself, Too
Being close to someone with dissociative identity disorder can be emotionally taxing. It can be challenging to stay vigilant of triggers, and different alters. Often, people with this condition have been through intensely traumatic experiences, usually in childhood, and hearing about these experiences can be difficult. The best way to serve your friend is to ensure you tend to your own physical and mental well-being.
How to Talk to Your Friend About Treatment
Professional care can enormously benefit someone with a dissociative identity disorder. With the help of a clinician, individuals with this condition can learn how to cope with and recognize triggers, understand the roots of their trauma and better manage the challenges that come with switching between alters. Unfortunately, because dissociative identity disorder is so heavily stigmatized, many people who have it never seek treatment.
Related Topic: Treatment for dissociative disorder
As a friend of someone with dissociative identity disorder, you have the potential to help them seek care that could dramatically improve their life. If you know your friend lives with this condition but hasn’t sought professional help, these tips can help you productively discuss seeking treatment:
- Choose a time when you’re both free and relaxed. A low-stress environment sets the stage for a better, more productive discussion.
- Let them know that you care about them. Your loved one must know you’re coming from a place that wants them to feel better.
- Offer to help look for providers. Lending a hand in finding a therapist or treatment center can make seeking help less daunting.
- Accompany them to their first appointment. Knowing you’re there for them may make your friend more likely to seek help.
- Suggest getting started with teletherapy. People with mental health disorders can receive therapy services over the internet or by phone with teletherapy.
While professional treatment can benefit anyone with dissociative identity disorder, it’s particularly important when a person has other co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or substance use disorder. A treatment plan that addresses all mental health conditions is essential to long-term mental health and recovery in these cases.
Check out the Nobu app to learn more about dissociative identity disorder and other mental health topics. It is free for anyone wanting to reduce anxiety, work through depression, build self-esteem, get aftercare following treatment, attend teletherapy sessions and so much more. Download the Nobu app today!
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Dissociative Disorders.” Accessed January 18, 2019.
Spiegel, David. “Expert Q&A: Dissociative Disorders.” American Psychiatric Association, 2020. Accessed September 14, 2022.
Dissociative Identity Disorder Research. “Switching and Passive Influence.” November 12, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2022.
Gillig, P. M. “Dissociative identity disorder: a controversial diagnosis.” Psychiatry, 2019. Accessed September 14, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.