Misconceptions of Multi-Personality Disorder

Multiple personality disorders are often misrepresented by the media and even ignored by some mental health professionals. How can we curb misconceptions?

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When the topic of multi-personality disorder is brought up, what comes to your mind? Is it movie and TV scenes of crazed, manic criminals enacting chaos and destruction? Perhaps even some sort of super villain that shifts from one identity to another?

While cinematic depictions of multiple personality disorder give a hint into this condition, the reality is often misunderstood or worse, demonized due to fear and ignorance.

Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look into multi-personality disorder, its signs and symptoms, and how it can be treated. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What is Multi-Personality Disorder?

Multiple personality disorder (MPD) is a mental health condition that also goes by the more recent rewritten classification of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Those that have dissociative identity disorder typically experience more than two distinct personalities at a given point in time routinely. ¹

And while its common for all of us to experience one or two episodes of disassociation, dissociative identity disorder roughly affects 2% of the worlds population and it occurs routinely in a cyclic nature. It’s also been found to affect women more than men.

How MPD Diagnosed?

Diagnosing MPD can be a long, arduous process involving different doctors of various backgrounds administering assessments that all culminate in a diagnosis. The first step in this process is having the patient, who’s aware of their symptoms, discuss with their doctor their concerns that they may be experiencing episodes of disassociation from what should be their normal day-to-day existence.

From there the primary physician may feel it necessary to administer a physical assessment of the patient in order to correlate symptoms to their source, whether it be dissociative identity disorder or something else entirely.

If the results of the physical exam match up with the findings of those that suffer from DID, the patient will move on to seeing a psychologist or a physiatrist who will administer their own tests. The results of these will give mental health professionals an idea as to how far into the condition the patient has come.

Difficulties in Diagnosing: The Differential Diagnosis

The biggest difficult with diagnosing is there are so many different dissociative disorders that share common symptoms with DID. In turn, it’s common for a patient to receive a differential diagnosis then what they were initially expecting.

There is also a growing concern that patients experiencing DID might not be believed by some psychologists and physicians. The rate of those who complain of dissociative symptoms and are not treated with adequate care is growing. And there are some clinicians that believe that dissociation disorders are merely anxiety or bipolar episodes.

In a 2011 article published in the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, the subject of misdiagnosis was touched upon:

“The difficulties in diagnosing DID results primarily from lack of education among clinicians about dissociation, dissociative disorders, and the effects of psychological trauma, as well as from clinician bias. This leads to limited clinical suspicion about dissociative disorders and misconceptions about their clinical presentation.” ²

Treating DID 

The treatment for MPD or DID is a combination of clinician consultations, talk therapy, and sometimes a medication regimen consisting of either anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, or antipsychotic drugs. These medications help control the symptoms associated with dissociative disorders allowing for patients to have an easier progression through other treatment options.

The most important aspect of the treatment plan is having reliable, consistent communication with a psychologist. It’s imperative in order to chart changes of symptoms, symptom variety, and progression of symptoms that may occur. Charting will take the form of a weekly or monthly talk therapy session as well as consultations with physicians. ³

There are different forms of talk therapy and each serves a different function in the treatment plan. Traditional talk therapy, also referred to as psychotherapy, helps in assessing symptoms and charts symptom ferocity and this sort of therapy might include a prescription to one of the medications listed above.

However, the other kind of therapy and one that has seen the most long-term improvement for patients is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing dysfunctional thinking patterns, feelings, and behaviors. It is also common for those who are dealing with this disorder to go through family therapy with their loved ones in order to educate them about the disorder and to learn ways of coping with it in a healthy and safe manner.

How to Handle Multiple Personalities

Dealing with the shifts that come with MPD can be difficult and confusing but there are methods that makes handling the disorder and the mood shifts (which are commonly referred to as alters) easier. The biggest thing that ties all these methods together is the idea of knowing yourself, your disorder, and how it manifests.

The best way to relieve symptoms is to understand the triggers that might causes a shift from one personality to another. For example, a veteran of war might shift from an alter due to loud noises like a car backfiring, which might send him or her into a state of shock and then disassociation, leading to a DID episode.

Knowing the triggers and how and when they might occur is a way in which you can anticipate and then prepare for a shift in personality in the future, thus making an episode less stressful.

The Link Between Trauma and Dissociation

One of the most common correlations between dissociative disorders lies in how the patient experiences and deals with past trauma. Those who have experienced a good deal of trauma either at an early and impressionable age or due to the sheer volume of traumatic episodes are more likely to experience episodes of dissociation, in order to disconnect from their reality.

For example, dissociative episodes and dissociative disorders are more common in those that have seen and experienced combat first hand. Veterans and active duty soldiers, law enforcement officials, and first responders often have episodes of feeling disconnected from their reality. Most commonly discussing times in which they feel as though they are watching their lives play out around them like a movie, feeling more like an audience member than an active participant.

However, that isn’t to say that only war heroes and first responders are the only ones to have dissociation. It’s common in those that have experienced violence or severe untreated trauma in their lives. Having the ability to openly and safely discuss this trauma might be a key in helping ease dissociative symptoms and episodes of disconnection.

Misconceptions of DID 

There are a lot of misconceptions about MPD and many of them come from the way in which the media chooses to represent and portray the condition. Many incorrectly believe that if you have DID, you might be a danger to yourself and others around you.

We shouldn’t really blame the population for having this misleading assumption of those with DID. Everywhere you look, DID is being depicted in negative or deceptive manner. Here is a list of some of the common misconceptions of DID:

  • DID isn’t real
  • Films, TV, and media present an accurate portrayal of those suffering from MDP or DID
  • DID’s dissociative shift episodes are obvious, and in some cases, extreme.
  • Those that suffer from DID are insane and prone to being violent criminals, such as serial killers and kidnappers
  • DID mirrors schizophrenia and, therefore, must be a form of schizophrenia

Busting the Myths Of DID  

When we look at that list of common misconceptions, they may seem obviously wrong but a large percentage truly believe these claims. There is widespread ignorance about this disorder and, in some cases, there may even be fear of those who do not comprehend the condition and how it might manifest.

Let’s take the time to quickly knock these misconceptions one-by-one:

  • Claim: DID isn’t real.
    • Reality: DID is a real disorder with classifications in the DSM-5 and has been a diagnosable mental illness since its addition to the DSM-3 in 1980.
  • Claim: Films, TV and media present an accurate portrayal of those suffering from MDP or DID.
    • Reality: TV, films, and media have done more to cause and spread ignorance about DID through their over dramatized portrayals of the condition. It’s a minuscule portion of the population struggling with DID that have violent tendencies. Media portrayals are usually either exaggerated or factually wrong when it comes to depicting this disorder.
  • Claim: DID’s dissociative shift episodes are obvious, and in some cases, extreme.
    • Reality: Actually it is more common for shifts in personality to be subtle or even innocuous. That is why its important to be aware of symptoms and changes in mood, behaviors and tendencies that are not normal for those suffering from DID.
  • Claim: Those that suffer from DID are insane and prone to being violent criminals, such as serial killers and kidnappers
    • Reality: Of course that is NOT the case. People who unfortunately suffer from DID are everyday people. In fact those that suffer from DID are more likely to have suffered from violence and therefore have trauma linked to such events.
  • Claim: DID mirrors schizophrenia and therefore must be a form of schizophrenia
    • Reality: Although they may seem similar they are in fact two different disorders. Those that suffer from schizophrenia have symptoms that are psychotic in nature and usually include hallucinations and delusions. These symptoms DO NOT correlate with those that are typically found in dissociative disorders, such as DID. These are two different disorders.

The best thing to do in order to try and combat these misconceptions and ignorance is to be armed with knowledge. While watching media portrayals of this disorder, understand that most depictions are often exaggerated in order to heighten the drama onscreen. Remember that DID is a real disorder that affects roughly 2% of the world’s population and most of these patients are leading normal, everyday lives while through their condition.

Final Word

Multiple personalities is not something that we, as everyday people, might run into. But for those that are experiencing it and those that are watching their loved ones go through this condition, it can be frightening. The ability to be connected, engaged, and active in our lives is a blessing we might take for granted when we look to those that are dealing with this disorder and having to fight every single day to try and gain some semblance of control.

It’s important that we treat cases of MPD with the care, consideration, and empathy. It’s hard enough dealing with a disorder as complex as this one and it makes it even harder when there are misconceptions and stigma around the disorder. The only way to find safe, practical and long lasting care is by being open and honest without the fear of being judged or ridiculed.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning DID or perhaps the misconceptions surrounding the disorder?

We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further advice to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ NAMI: Dissociative Disorders – An Overview

² Journal of Trauma & Disassociation: Guidelines for Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder in Adults, Third Revision

³ Cleveland Clinic: How Is Dissociative Identity Disorder Treated?

⁴ SANE Australia: Busting the Myths of DID

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