University support is lacking for those with dissociative identity disorders

We need to change the way we handle dissociative disorders. Pixabay

Not being ‘disabled enough’ doesn’t exist

By Shae Sackman, contributor

Mar. 5 was International Dissociative Identity Disorder Awareness Day, focused on raising awareness for a disorder and its symptoms that are becoming increasingly more common as more is learned about how trauma affects the brain. Complex traumatic experience can manifest with many symptoms, which can be incredibly difficult to manage while at work or school.

A dissociative disorder is typically characterized by a lack of connection between things that should be connected. This can involve a connection between you and your physical body, a person and a cohesive identity, a profound alienation between you and your surroundings, and can result in discontinuity in consciousness, memory or perception. A common and perfectly normal experience of a kind of dissociation that is often referred to is when a person arrives home without fully being aware of the drive there.

Development of a dissociative disorder is a combination of environmental and biological factors and when under extreme and repeated forms of inescapable stress, various forms of dissociation can help a person protect themself. It allows them to detach or create a kind of ‘mental distance’ from what is happening to them. When this happens multiple times, the coping mechanism can become a reaction to perceived threat, and it begins to interfere in everyday life.

Unfortunately, adequate support for these issues is incredibly difficult to obtain. Trauma-informed services are generally hard to find in Saskatchewan, let alone therapists who specialize in treating things like dissociation, dissociative amnesia, derealization, depersonalization and complex trauma. Obtaining a medical diagnosis for a dissociative disorder is incredibly arduous, as many professionals lack current information of these kinds of experiences and may diagnose them as something else.

Clients themselves often have no idea that anything out of the ordinary is happening until things are quite drastic, may be deeply ashamed of ‘losing control’, or may lack the language to describe their experience since it is incredibly abstract. Many people working with providers spend years misdiagnosed, potentially causing further issues as treatment for dissociative disorders is highly specific and the wrong approach can be detrimental. Medications do little to treat the core of these issues because they are experiential and environmental in nature, though they can help control some associated symptoms to help a person interact in their daily life more effectively.

These issues make finding support within a university setting incredibly difficult. Without the proper providers, an accurate diagnosis is not likely, and without an accurate diagnosis you cannot engage with the medical model of the disability the University of Regina currently follows for accessibility. Without thoughtful and creative accommodation, the chances of someone experiencing the disruptive symptoms of a dissociative disorder succeeding in a University setting are very slim.

Even with the correct kinds of documentation and the right types of providers willing to help, unless you are ruthless in chasing accommodations that are perhaps more inventive – which, when you experience some kind of limitation that needs consideration, is a level of engagement that is often out of reach for many – someone experiencing dissociation still has to maintain those accommodations, while also managing and coordinating their support team (if they have managed to find one), their mental illness, and lastly, their university workload.

There are many things that can be done to support those experiencing a dissociative or trauma-based disorder. There are two sides. What individuals at the University of Regina can do to support their fellow students, and what the university itself could do. For students, first and foremost, realizing that there is research that indicates that dissociative disorders are about as common as a mood disorder, such as depression, is important.

Many, many people have dissociative experiences in a wide range of intensities and combinations for a number of different reasons. Someone you know is likely dealing with some aspect of this. Your understanding and compassion are free to give, and could be the difference for a person in not just this, but any situation. Not touching a person without consent is another guideline that may not seem like much, but is absolutely crucial to the continued safety and well being of a person with a dissociative disorder.

And perhaps, most crucially, not demanding, expecting, or feeling entitled to the details of a person’s history with a trauma-based disorder (or any other kind of lived experience) and consequently re-traumatizing them is the bare minimum of courtesy.

The University of Regina has a unique opportunity as a smaller school that purportedly says that “U Belong Here”. While individual interactions I have had at the university as a person with a dissociative disorder have been patient and thoughtful, the overall institutional experience has not managed to convince me that they think I belong here.

The sheer amount of effort and self-advocacy needed to engage with the medical model of accommodation is a massive barrier to not just someone with a dissociative disorder who cannot obtain a proper diagnosis due to lack of resources, but many individuals living with disabilities that are somehow ‘not disabled enough’ or are not experiencing problems in the ‘right way’ to qualify them for consideration.

If the university truly wanted people to feel as if they belonged, they could adopt a needs-based assessment of accommodation rather than a medical model, and see how that changes the landscape of this campus and perhaps the way that support in general works within an educational institution. This would have amazing impacts not just in terms of actually practicing what they preach, but by also allowing those students who could use a progressive, proactive plan of support get what they need to succeed and interact in a way that would lead to a fulfilling university life.

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