Very few psychological disorders have captured the public’s imagination like Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). While often confused with schizophrenia, which is characterized by paranoia rather than dissociation, dissociative identity is a completely unrelated disorder.
Dissociative disorders in general tend to be rare, misunderstood, and often debated among psychology experts. Many disagree about whether DID, arguably the most severe dissociative disorder, is a real disorder or an affliction created by suggestion. The DSM-5 criteria for DID has two requirements: the presence of multiple distinct personalities and the presence of true amnesia, the complete lack of memory transfer, between those personalities. Many experts, whether they believe in DID or not, acknowledge that the symptoms arise from the memories of severe trauma.
While these symptoms may seem fantastical, the fact remains that reported prevalence of DID has ranged from .01 percent to 3 percent in the general population, depending on the source. This inconsistent range is a testament to the debate around defining and diagnosing the disorder. Despite its potentially high prevalence, the National Institute of Mental Health has not yet funded a single study on it. Furthermore, the majority of treatments for DID attempt to deal with the associated distress, and there are no approved, researched methods of treatment. It seems, then, that lack of information about DID prevents developments in research.
On the other hand, some experts claim that DID is a figment of the imagination. Though DID is often associated with childhood trauma, the majority of childhood trauma does not result in dissociation of any kind. Furthermore, considering that the majority of diagnoses of DID come from strong proponents, some experts point out that the disorder may have been manufactured through leading questions and the suggestibility of the patient. Finally, though true amnesia is a DSM-5 requirement for DID, a study conducted in the Netherlands shows at least some memory exchange between personalities. Such issues present doubt about whether psychiatrists should treat the disorder itself or the beliefs about the disorder.
No matter where the debate leans, however, some people suffer from it. The presence of different personalities clamoring for attention and use of the body is often chaotic and frightening for those involved. Those with DID are usually unable to work and typically find themselves living disjointed lives. While the disorder does need to be better defined, the scientific debates surrounding it have little direct effect on the lives of those with DID.
Media, however, has often been a powerful factor in influencing opinions and ideas about DID. Indeed, the disorder was first brought to the public eye by the books The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, and the latter’s accompanying movie. These portrayals of DID were followed by an eruption of cases as well as more personalities associated with each case. While science attempted to untangle the disorder, media had already run rampant with it.
Though DID is not often found in commonly read news or science articles these days, the media has not lost its fascination with it. From an episode of Psych where a man unwittingly harbors both a feminine and a serial killer identity to a more accurate portrayal of the disorder in Criminal Minds, television often takes advantage of the mystique surrounding the disorder to create drama on the screen. Often, however, DID is not as wild or as romantic as it is portrayed; like any other psychological disorder, those with it often see it as a harsh burden to bear throughout their daily lives.
Learning more about DID can enable us to have a better awareness compared to media portrayals. Hopefully, time and research will enable more effective treatment.
Gillig PM. Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Controversial Diagnosis. Gillig PM, ed. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2009;6(3):24-29.
Huntjens, Rafaële J. C., Bruno Verschuere, and Richard J. Mcnally. “Inter-Identity Autobiographical Amnesia in Patients with Dissociative Identity Disorder.” Ed. James G. Scott. PLoS ONE 7.7 (2012): E40580. Web.