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Dissociating DID from Media’s Stereotypes

Laura Bedser '19
Can you fathom sharing the space of your body and mind with other people? Or, more specifically, multiple personalities? This is the reality of life for people living with dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, and this mental illness has been sorely misrepresented in media.  
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, roughly 2% of our population is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. More specifically, the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation states that within the US, there are between three and ten million individuals who have DID. This illness is incurable. However, therapy and medication can make it manageable, explains online counseling resource Dissociative Disorder Identity Groups.
How does this dissociative disorder develop? Cleveland Clinic explains that when a person faces severe abuse at a very young age, they subconsciously produce other identities, called alters, as a coping mechanism. The alters take over the body and mind, disassociating the host person from their surroundings. Each alter has unique traits, including worldview, gender, name, age, mannerism, and sexuality.

In the 2004 Documentary The Woman With 7 Personalities, DID patient 35-year-old Helen has alters that self-harm and are alcoholic. “It must be one of the others,” she lamented, while she dumped alcohol found hidden in a drawer down the sink. “Probably Brenda, or maybe Karl.” Brenda and Karl, two elusive teenage personalities, were alters who experienced Helen’s childhood abuse. 16-year-old Karl, Helen’s alter who self-harms her body, explained to Helen’s friend “’s easier to feel physical pain than it is emotional pain… I think [Helen] understands...”

Alters also can have varying levels of control over the host. In an interview with MedCircle, a young woman named Encina who is diagnosed with DID explains that different levels of consciousness can occur when her alters take over, ranging from full awareness of the alter’s activities to none at all. She explains what it’s like when the alters overpower Encina's host personality: “Say someone threw a bag over my head. I can’t see where I’m going, I can’t see what’s happening. I can hear though. It's kind of like a wall has been placed over my eyes…” Encina’s alters include a three-year-old girl named Minnie and a benevolent fairy, but certainly no psychotic killers as media would suggest.
Because so many people don’t understand this mental disorder, it’s used as a plot device. This teaches viewers that people with DID are volatile, when that’s not the case. The National Institute of Justice states that “people with DID are more likely to be victimized by others than to victimize them, according to research.” In her interview, Encina even notes that people assume that those with DID are dangerous, when in reality, they blend into society, living normal lives.

Even before DID was identified in the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, the concept existed in literature such as the classic novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It can’t be said that this particular literature is misrepresenting DID, because it must be considered within the framework of when it was written.

However, the 2016 film Split has no such excuse. Split falsely represents this debilitating mental illness, as said by the ISSTD, which put out a letter regarding the misportrayal of DID in the film. Rotten Tomatoes summarizes: “Though Kevin has evidenced 23 personalities to his [psychiatrist], there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others.” At the end of the movie, Kevin's elusive 24th alter "The Beast" murders several characters.

The ISSTD’s statement regarding Split detailed that, in reality, in research done of 173 individuals being treated for DID or a similar disorder in a six-month time period, only 3% reported having been charged with an offense, while 1.8% were fined, and 0.6% were incarcerated. This representative sample shows that DID does not lead to criminal activity. The ISSTD also estimated that just 1% of the profit from this movie would be more than all combined research funding DID has ever received, showcasing a sad truth: this movie exploits a complex mental illness for horror thrills, without validating those who genuinely suffer.
As a smart society, we must work harder on educating ourselves on mental illnesses, fighting against the instinct to fear and thus trivialize what and who we do not understand.

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