Does Multiple Personality Disorder Compel People To Kill? And Is It Even Real?

Does M. Night Shyamalan's new movie encourage stigma against the mentally ill?

Controversial director M. Night Shyamalan is releasing his next feature film later this month. Split tells the story of a mentally ill man compelled to murder by an alternate personality that lives inside him. Hollywood has had a fascination with what was once known as multple personality disorder for a while now, but moviemakers usually get the basic facts about the condition quite wrong. Furthermore, the existence of a mental illness even resembling MPD has been called into question for a while now. To what extent does this disease even exist?

Despite the term "multiple personality disorder" persisting in the public's lexicon, the term is seen as outdated and inaccurate by mental health practitioners. As it exists in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual currently, the condition is more accurately known as dissociative identity disorder (often shortened to DID) and is characterized by "the presence of two or more distinct personality states." It is thought to be caused by severe trauma in (early) childhood, among a handful of other factors. Diagnosis of DID is considerably difficult considering it often presents itself along with with borderline personality disorder features, depression, malingering, psychosis, and a variety of other neuroses and hysterias.

DID has a long history in literature and film, from Jekyll and Hyde to Sybil (the latter example of which was presented as entirely factual, although considerable doubt about the narrative has since been raised). Despite DID's prevalence in works of art, examples of the disorder in reality are exceedingly rare (no statistics about its prevalence are even given in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), leading to a general lack of knowledge about prognosis or treatment. The very existence of DID remains controversial, with many psychologists doubting whether there are any true examples of DID at all, or if the disorder is a result of a certain, specific complicity between suggestible or imaginative patients and their misled caretakers. In fact, the very framing of DID as a disorder poses considerable philosophical problems for mental health workers: to what extent are mental illnesses "made up" or "real" at all?

While there is often a connection in fiction between crime and DID, the reality of DID is far different. In actuality, there seems to be no linkage between DID and criminality whatsoever. American serial killer Kenneth Bianchi may have convinced a handful of psychologists of the existence of other personalities within him, but that conclusion has also been carefully criticized since. Other than that? There's not much, despite many criminals attempting to use the disorder as an excuse for their behavior to avoid potential jail time.

This brings us back to Split. To what extent is it irreponsible to depict a link between mental illness and criminality? To what extent do sensationalist movies about serious mental impairments and their associations with murder further stigmatize those suffering from actual congitive or emotional defects? It's unfair to judge the movie just from the trailers, so we'll have to wait for the film's release to form a clear opinion on the matter.

[Photo: Screenshot via YouTube]

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