Dissociative identity disorder comes with a lot of stigma and misunderstanding. We’re here to bust some common myths.

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Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a dissociative disorder.

Many people with DID have a history of severe childhood abuse, which may have caused them to dissociate from their bodies to cope with overwhelming trauma.

Symptoms of DID include a sense of feeling detached from one’s sense of self and the presence of at least two other distinct personalities. Many people with DID experience memory gaps when different personalities take over.

DID is one of the most misunderstood psychiatric disorders. It’s important to address misconceptions with solid research to spread understanding and reduce the stigma around this disorder.

Many people believe that DID isn’t an actual condition or that it was a medical “fad.” But DID has been reported for hundreds of years and makes a strong appearance in medical literature.

DID is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) as a dissociative disorder. It’s characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality states in one body. These identities may have unique names, traits, voices, and mannerisms. People with DID may experience frequent memory gaps.

Research published in 2014 confirms that dissociative identity disorder is a complex but valid condition that can be proven across many markers. Studies show that DID is linked to diverse brain regions and cognitive functions.

The symptoms of DID can be easily distinguished from other conditions. The disorder is commonly associated with severe childhood relational trauma.

Due to a spike in diagnoses during the 1980s and 1990s and then a decline, DID was called a medical fad. Some believe it was popular to diagnose people with this disorder at one point and that it simply fell out of style.

But researchers note that DID cases have been described in medical literature for hundreds of years.

In addition, researchers say there were 1,339 research papers about DID between 2000-2014. This suggests an ongoing professional interest in the disorder.

Other factors dispelling this myth include:

  • People with DID are consistently identified in inpatient, outpatient, and community samples worldwide.
  • People with DID can be reliably diagnosed through structured/semi-structured interviews and in clinical practice.
  • People with DID often benefit from psychotherapy that addresses trauma and dissociation.
  • DID is easily differentiated from other psychiatric disorders.

DID can occur alongside borderline personality disorder (BPD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s a general misconception — even in some psychology textbooks — that DID is rare. Prevalence rates in the general population and psychiatric settings suggest otherwise.

In fact, DID is more common than schizophrenia.

Research shows that DID is present in about 1.1% to 1.5% of community samples. In comparison, schizophrenia is estimated to occur in about 0.25% to 0.64% of adults.

In a sample of 658 people from New York, 1.5% met the diagnostic criteria for DID. Similarly, in a study of 628 community women in Turkey, 1.1% had DID.

In addition, studies looking at populations with exceptionally high exposure to trauma or cultural oppression show the highest rates of DID. For instance, 6% of repeated admissions in a highly traumatized U.S. inner-city sample were diagnosed with DID.

Despite common belief, DID and schizophrenia are different disorders.

A persistent myth about schizophrenia is that people with the condition have a “split personality” — the idea that the self is split into various identities.

A 2008 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) survey found that 64% of the respondents believed that “split or multiple personalities” were symptoms of schizophrenia.

While recent mental health campaigns have aimed to educate people on the difference, the myth still lingers.

Another contributor to this myth is that the symptoms of DID often overlap with the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as distorted perceptions of reality. But it’s much less common for people with DID to share the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as social withdrawal or lack of pleasure.

Another important distinction is that people with schizophrenia are less likely to experience dissociative symptoms, such as memory and identity loss.

Schizophrenia is also a genetic illness that tends to run in families, and the disorder can result in a gradual decrease in functioning if left untreated. DID is not hereditary but is most often caused by trauma.

Some people believe DID is a personality disorder, but this is not the case. DID is identified in the DSM-5 as a dissociative disorder.

There are a few reasons people might think DID is a personality disorder. The previous name, “multiple personality disorder” (changed to DID in 1994), still sticks with some people and may cause confusion.

Another reason is that DID is more common in people with borderline personality disorder.

While 2014 research shows that the two disorders overlap in symptoms (as many conditions do), they also have distinct features that set them apart.

Dissociative disorders may involve memory gaps and a sense of detachment from oneself and the world. Personality disorders are marked by a consistent pattern of traits that interfere with a person’s stable life.

Research has not convincingly shown a link between DID and increased violence.

Horror movies that feature characters with DID have contributed to this myth and may even be responsible for it. According to 2009 research, DID is a controversial diagnosis because of fear that criminals would not be punished if they claimed another personality committed the crime.

But there is no association between DID and increased crime.

A 2017 study found that among 173 people in treatment for dissociative identity disorder, their involvement with the criminal justice system was low.

Researchers found that only 0.6% had been incarcerated within the past 6 months. In addition, no convictions or probations in the prior 6 months had been reported. Finally, they found that no DID symptoms reliably predicted criminal behavior.

The myth that people with DID are dangerous leads to further stigmatizing those with this disorder.

DID is a highly misunderstood psychiatric disorder. Tackling pervasive myths can help unravel the stigma that many people with DID experience.

More understanding and less stigma can also mean more people living with DID feel comfortable reaching out for help or pursuing treatments, leading to a more fulfilling, stable life. You can learn more about treatments for DID here.

For more information about DID or help to find treatment, you can visit the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) website.

For further support, you can call The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 1-800-950-6264 or email at info@nami.org.