Dispelling Myths about Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder (DID), known previously as multiple personality disorder, is not a real disorder. At least, that’s what you might’ve heard in the media, and even from some mental health professionals. DID is arguably one of the most misunderstood and controversial diagnoses in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But it is a real and debilitating disorder that makes it difficult for people to function.
Why the controversy?
According to Bethany Brand, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Towson University and an expert in treating and researching dissociative disorders, there are several reasons. DID is associated with early severe trauma, such as abuse and neglect.
This raises the concern over false memories. Some people worry that clients may “remember” abuse that didn’t actually happen and innocent people may get blamed for abuse. (“Most people with DID don’t forget all their abuse or trauma,” Brand said; “sufferers may forget episodes or aspects of some of their trauma,” but it’s “fairly rare not to remember any trauma at all and suddenly recover memories of chronic childhood abuse.”) It also “pries into families’ privacy,” and families may be reluctant to reveal information that might put them in a negative light.
In the mental health field, myths persist because of a lack of education and training about DID. These myths create a mystique around the disorder and perpetuate the belief that DID is bizarre. For instance, one prevalent myth is that there are “different people inside someone with DID,” Brand said. Adding to the problem are poorly trained therapists who promote atypical treatments that aren’t supported by the expert clinical community. “Mainstream, well-trained dissociative experts don’t advocate using bizarre treatment interventions. Rather, they use interventions that are similar to common ones used in treating complex trauma,” she said.
What Is DID?
DID typically develops in childhood as a result of severe and sustained trauma. It’s characterized by different identities or “self-states” (there is no integrated sense of self) and an inability to recall information that goes beyond forgetfulness. Prone to amnesia, people with DID sometimes “can’t remember what they’ve done or said,” Brand said. They have a tendency to dissociate or “space out and lose track of minutes or hours.” For instance, it’s “common [for people with DID] to find they’ve hurt themselves [but] don’t remember doing that,” Brand said. The loss of memory isn’t due to drugs or alcohol, but a switch in self-states, she noted. Here’s a list of the DSM criteria for DID.
7 Common DID Myths
It’s safe to say that most of what we know about DID is either exaggerated or flat-out false. Here’s a list of common myths, followed by the facts.
1. DID is rare. Studies show that in the general population about 1 to 3 percent meet full criteria for DID. This makes the disorder as common as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The rates in clinical populations are even higher, Brand said. Unfortunately, even though DID is fairly common, research about it is grossly underfunded. Researchers often use their own money to fund studies or volunteer their time. (The National Institute of Mental Health has yet to fund a single treatment study on DID.)