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Explainer: Why there’s no reason to fear people with dissociative identity disorder

Published on Tue 09 May 2023 at 04:24

Inaccurate portrayals of people with DID in mainstream media highlight tendencies towards violent or murderous impulse, and the lack of control over the other personalities.

By Toibah Kirmani

Have you ever met someone who can be Tom one minute and Jerry the next? We are not referring to mood swings, but to a mental health condition called dissociative identity disorder (DID). Formerly called multiple personality disorder, the condition is characterised by a person having two or more distinct personalities. These personalities usually have names, traits, mannerisms, and distinctive voices. 

Unfortunately, portrayals of people with DID in mainstream media have created an unfounded sense of fear about this rare mental health condition. The majority of DID-themed films and TV shows, such as Split, The United States of Tara, Sybil, and Me, Myself, and Irene, for example, tend to highlight tendencies towards violent or murderous impulses, and the lack of control over the other personalities. 

Not only are these medically inaccurate, but they also promote misrepresentations, incorrect application of diagnostic criteria, and a tendency to sensationalise and further stigmatise the mental illness. Experts concur that one of the main flaws in how DID is portrayed on television and in movies is the exaggeration of the disorder’s outward appearance. DID is meant to go unnoticed, with its entire purpose being to allow the host to live a normal life.

According to extensive research, the cause of DID is likely a psychological response to interpersonal and environmental stresses, particularly during early childhood years when emotional neglect or abuse may interfere with personality development.

First Check spoke with Dr Tafazul Khaja, a psychiatrist based in Portsmouth, England, who noted that DID most often affects people who have experienced long-term physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during childhood or who grow up in tense or unstable homes. “It is a rare disorder, but is more common in women. The brain develops a coping mechanism and unconsciously erects amnesia barriers as a result of the child’s inability to handle this trauma. This enables the emergence of additional “selves” or altered identities that allow them to live a normal life without remembering the tragedy,” he explains. 

However, the amnesia barriers start to dissolve over time. This is when most individuals begin to piece together that something is seriously wrong. They recall previous traumatic incidents, hear voices of the other identities in their system, and frequently start to feel extremely anxious and depressed.

“It is difficult to treat DID; psychotherapy is the mainstay of management. Medication is used to treat associated disorders like depression, anxiety, and psychosis,” informs Dr Tafazul.

Unlike what the popular media depicts, people with DID are not usually violent or dangerous. They are more likely to cause self-harm than be a threat to others.