On January 20th, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film will be released in American theaters. Split is a “psychological horror film” whose antagonist suffers from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder). In the movie, three teenage girls are kidnapped by a man named Kevin, who exhibits 23 distinct personalities. The girls must convince one of his personalities to set them free before the 24th personality makes its appearance. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 97% of people who were polled expressed interest in seeing the film once it hits theaters. If Split is expected to do well at the box office, mental health advocates should be prepared to handle increased stigmatization against people with dissociative identity disorder. I’d like to decrease the stigma by addressing some myths and facts about the condition.
But first, what exactly is dissociative identity disorder? It’s a mental health condition that causes a person to separate from their sense of identity, memories, feelings, or actions. A person with this condition may have experienced trauma in the past, with dissociating being used as a coping mechanism to avoid situations that are too overbearing. The different personalities cause a person to have trouble recalling key personal information. People with dissociative identity disorder may feel detached from reality, will suffer from amnesia, and may have trouble identifying their sense of self (their hobbies, viewpoints, etc.). Some people describe dissociation as feeling like they’re watching themselves through a movie.
Now, let’s discuss some of the myths about this disorder.
Myth: Dissociation is rare.
Fact: Although only 2% of people suffer from dissociative disorders, almost half of all adults in the United States experience an episode of dissociation or depersonalization at least once in their lives. The 2% of people who are diagnosed with dissociative disorders deal with dissociation chronically as opposed to occasionally.
Myth: People with dissociative identity disorder develop alter egos in order to fulfill violent desires, like in Fight Club.
Fact: Most of the identities taken on by a person with dissociative identity disorder are not violent.
Myth: Dissociative identity disorder is incurable.
Fact: A person with dissociative identity disorder can be treated through psychotherapy or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Myth: People already understand dissociative identity disorders.
Fact: Some mental health professionals refuse to acknowledge dissociate identity disorder as a real condition. There is a fear that people may make up stories of trauma that did not occur to them in order to see someone else get punished unfairly. In the mental health field, there is a lack of training and education surrounding this condition and others like it.
Myth: There are always distinct personalities that others can easily detect.
Fact: This isn’t always the case. Although some identities can present as a different age or gender, dissociative identities can come off as simply “different ways of being yourself,” according to Bethany Brand, Ph.D from Towson University. People without dissociative identity disorder do this from time to time, but the difference is that when a person dissociates, they cannot always remember what they said or did while in a different state of mind.
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In Hollywood, mental health conditions are often exaggerated in order to create compelling plot lines. That causes people to misunderstand mental illnesses. It creates fear and disgust for people who are suffering. Keep in mind that not everything you will see in Split is how dissociative identity disorder actually presents itself.