Once known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder remains one of the most intriguing but poorly understood mental illnesses. Research and clinical experience indicate people diagnosed with the condition have been victims of sexual abuse or other forms of criminal mistreatment.
But a vocal group of academics and health professionals have claimed dissociative identity disorder, and reports of trauma associated with it, are created by therapists and the media. They say these don’t reflect genuine symptoms or accurate memories.
Media references to dissociative identity disorder are also often highly stigmatising. The recent movie Split depicted a person with the condition as a psychopathic murderer. Even supposedly factual reporting can present people with dissociative identity disorder as untrustworthy and prone to wild fantasies and false memories.
But research hasn’t found people with the disorder are more prone to “false memories” than others. And brain imaging studies show significant differences in brain activity between people with dissociative identity disorder and other groups, including those who have been trained to mimic the disorder.
What is it?
Dissociative identity disorder has been studied by doctors and scientists for well over 100 years. In 1980, it was called multiple personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which outlines the symptoms of psychiatric conditions. Its name was changed in the 1994 edition of the DSM.
Dissociative identity disorder comes about when a child’s psychological development is disrupted by early repetitive trauma that prevents the normal processes of consolidating a core sense of identity. Reports of childhood trauma in people with dissociative identity disorder (that have been substantiated) include burning, mutilation and exploitation. Sexual abuse is also routinely reported, alongside emotional abuse and neglect.
The movie, Split, about a psychopathic murderer. Image via Facebook.
In response to overwhelming trauma, the child develops multiple, often conflicting, states or identities. These mirror the radical contradictions in their early attachments and social and family environments – for instance, a parent who swings unpredictably between aggression and care.
According to the DSM-5, the major characteristic of dissociative identity disorder is a disruption of identity, in which a person experiences two or more distinct personality states (or, in other cultures, experiences of so-called possession).
These states display marked differences in a person’s behaviour, recollections and opinions, and ways of engaging with the world and other people. The person frequently experiences gaps in memory or difficulties recalling events that occurred while they were in other personality states.