• The media is known for getting mental health wrong: It stigmatizes mental disorders by making those who suffer with them look weird, crazy, and dangerous.
  • One mental disorder that is commonly stigmatized as well as misunderstood is dissociative personality disorder, or what was previously called multiple personality disorder.
  • Despite what you may see in TV shows and movies (like Split), this disorder is not characterized by an army of extreme personalities, but personality fragmentation.
  • Those with dissociative identity disorder are not characteristically violent: Instead, they are often the victims of violence or abuse, which likely contributed to their development of this condition.
  • People with the illness also share very little in common with schizophrenia, despite what many think; the two are very different disorders with very different symptoms.
  • Finally, those with dissociative identity disorder don’t typically have a scary alter ego, like those seen in Split; instead, others very rarely recognize one has the condition.

We all probably know by now that TV shows and movies often stigmatize mental disorders; they make people with these conditions look weird, crazy, or even dangerous. Or, in the case of Split, all of the above.

Split is a psychological horror-thriller movie that follows a man, Kevin, who has dissociative identity disorder, which plays an incremental role in his kidnapping three teenage girls. Kevin has a whopping 24 personalities, many of which are pretty bizarre: such as Dennis, a nervous man with deviant sexual impulses (who carried out the actual kidnapping); Hedwig, an emotional little boy; Patricia, an older, unstable woman; and finally, the Beast, an angry creature-like personality with superhuman abilities. These personalities essentially take turns living in Kevin’s body and cannot be controlled or dismissed by anything… that is, except for the calling of his full name.

You’re probably wondering why I’m summarizing a movie that follows a man with dissociative identity disorder when the topic at hand is multiple personality disorder. Here’s the thing: they’re the same. This mental disorder is formerly known as multiple personality disorder but has since been renamed dissociative identity disorder. And yes, it is real… but not quite how it’s displayed in Split. While I’d say this is a successfully scary movie, I wouldn’t call it a success when it comes to the accurate depiction of mental illness.

What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Its former name makes it sound like a personality disorder, but dissociative identity disorder actually doesn’t belong to this subgroup of mental health conditions. Instead, it’s one of several dissociative disorders, in which the individual has two or more distinct identities or personalities. Those who suffer with this disorder experience significant distress, impairment in important areas of functioning, and memory loss.

Sounds like it lines up with the movie pretty well so far… but here’s where they got it wrong: dissociative identity disorder is characterized by identity fragmentation, not an army of separate personalities or characters. This is precisely why the name was changed 23 years ago: to better reflect grounds for the disorder and what the sufferers really experience. The following criteria, as set forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), must be met in order for a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder to be made:

  • The individual must experience two or more distinct personality states, each of which has a specific way of perceiving and thinking about the environment and self.
  • This identity disturbance includes changes in behavior, consciousness, cognition, memory, and motor function.
  • There are regular gaps in memories of personal history, for both the far-gone and recent past. These include memories about specific people, places, and events.
  • The above symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in everyday functioning.

It’s not always clear why some people develop the disorder, but oftentimes, the individuals report having been physically or sexually abused. In fact, 90% with the disorder in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, report having been abused as a child. In Split, it is attributed to Kevin’s mother’s abusive behavior.

True or False: Debunking the Myths

We’ve already debunked the myth of all myths that pertain to dissociative identity disorder: the disease DOES exist. But, there are still a lot of other myths out there that could use some correcting:

1) True or false: People with dissociative identity disorder are violent or dangerous.
False. Individuals with this disorder are no more violent or criminal than the average person. They’re actually more likely than most to experience continued abuse and violence, as a majority of those with this disorder have been abused in the past.

2) True or false: Despite popular belief, dissociative identity disorder does not have much in common with schizophrenia.
True. Symptoms of schizophrenia include delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, and social withdrawal—all of which are not specific symptoms or criteria for dissociative identity disorder. The two are very different illnesses, with little similarity.

3) True or false: At least one of the identities is extreme and scary.
False. A majority of Kevin’s personalities in Split may have been extreme and bizarre, but this typically isn’t the case with dissociative identity disorder (remember, it was a movie). In fact, others very rarely notice an individual’s personality change.