Hollywood loves to use extreme depictions of mental illness to make movies, and they’re not always concerned with accuracy or sensitivity.
The latest example, Split, portrays a highly stigmatising, inaccurate version of dissociative identity disorder (DID).
So it’s time to counter the myths with some facts.
DID is a complex mental illness. Its defining feature is the presence of at least two alternate personalities (alters) who routinely take control of the person’s behaviour. A person with DID also experiences noticeable, recurring gaps in their memory.
DID is associated with overwhelming experiences, traumatic events and/or abuse during childhood.
DID was formerly known as split personality or multiple personality disorder, but the correct name is dissociative identity disorder.
DID has been officially recognized as a mental disorder since its inclusion in the 1980 release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).
The diagnosis of DID continues to remain controversial among mental health professionals as understanding of the illness develops, but there is no question that the symptoms are real and people do experience them.
Related: Fact vs myth: mental illness basics
Research undertaken by the University of Melbourne found that ‘pervasive negative portrayals can have harmful effects, perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness and reducing the likelihood that those with mental illness will seek help.’
And when it comes to DID, movies and TV rarely provide an accurate portrayal. Symptoms are frequently sensationalised, exaggerated or just plain wrong.
Movies and TV shows that misrepresent DID spread inaccurate information about a real illness and stigmatise the people living with it. Stigma discourages people from seeking help and isolates them socially.
Related: Reducing stigma
Schizophrenia and DID are often confused with each other, but they’re very different things.
Schizophrenia is a psychotic illness: symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, disorganized thoughts, speech and movements and social withdrawal. It does not involve alternate personalities or dissociation.
People with DID are not delusional or hallucinating their alters. Individuals with DID may experience some symptoms related to psychosis, such as hearing voices, but DID and schizophrenia are two different illnesses.
Related: Top picks: Exploring schizophrenia
People with DID are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. There are very few documented cases linking crime to DID. The idea of an ‘evil’ alter is not true.
People with DID are more likely than the general population to be re-traumatized and experience further abuse and violence.
Because of the association with multiple or ‘split’ personalities, DID is often misunderstood to be a personality disorder, but they are actually two very different things.
Personality disorders are a constant fixed pattern of feeling and behaving over time, usually developing in early adulthood. Personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder, involve extreme emotional responses and patterns of behaviour which make it hard for the person with the disorder to have stable relationships and function in society.
DID is a dissociative disorder. Rather than extreme emotional reactions to the world, people living with DID lose contact with themselves: their memories, sense of identity, emotions and behaviour. Unlike personality disorders, DID may first manifest at almost any age.
In movies and TV shows, switches between alternate identities tend to be wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect. In reality, for the vast majority of people with DID, switching between alters can’t be identified by a casual observer at all.