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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Depersonalization

Q. If I suffer from depersonalization, is it possible for me to pass this on to my children?

A. Possible, perhaps, but not likely, based on the limited available data. Depersonalization is the sense that one's body or one's self is strange or unreal. The individual with depersonalization may describe feeling detached from his or her mental processes or body, as if standing outside one's self as an observer.

In Depersonalization Disorder, these episodes are frequent and severe enough to cause significant distress or impairment in social/occupational functioning. Derealization is a closely related term, and describes the sense that objects in the external world (tables, other people, etc.) are strange, altered, or unreal. Depersonalization and derealization are part of a group of symptoms and disorders termed dissociative.

I am not aware of any credible evidence showing that depersonalization can be passed on to one's children, in the way that blue eyes or blond hair can be inherited. But, there are some data suggesting that dissociative symptoms may have a genetic component; i.e., genetic factors may be one of several biological, psychological, and social factors that increase the risk of depersonalization and related symptoms (see Jang et al, J Nerv Ment Dis 1998; 186:345-51).

Keep in mind, though, that depersonalization is a common symptom in the general population; that it arises from many possible causes; and that it does not always represent a full-fledged psychiatric disorder. It would be important to get a thorough neurological and medical evaluation to rule out physical causes for these symptoms. That may also help clarify the degree of genetic risk, if any, to your children.

November 2002

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