"Split": What Dissociative Identity Disorder Isn't

Image courtesy of Yahoo! movies.
[Image description: side-by-side of McAvoy in four different outfits from the movie.]

By Amelia A J Foy

The trailer for the movie Split, coming out on January 20th, has recently been gaining traction. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring James McAvoy (Charles Xavier in X-Men), it follows three girls who are kidnapped by Kevin, McAvoy’s character, described in the trailer as has having 23 identities living in his body. As an “individual with multiple personalities”, the trailer also states he can change his body chemistry with his thoughts, showing clips of Kevin doing just that. The general synopsis of this horror film is that these girls are going to be hurt by this dangerous, unpredictable, mentally disturbed man who is trying to physically turn into a monster.

Except the mental illness portrayed in this film isn’t fictional. Multiple Personality Disorder, now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in the psychiatric world, is characterised by one person having many identities, dubbed ‘alters’, who can have different names, ages and mannerisms. While ‘multiple personalities’ suggests that these alters are all different people, they’re in fact aspects of the person’s personality split into different identities, hence why the disorder was renamed. Someone with DID switches between these alters, all of which may possess different memories to the others, inducing amnesia and dissociation. DID can often be misdiagnosed as Schizophrenia due to many of their perceived similarities, but having alters is not the same as having auditory or visual hallucinations; alters are valid parts of this person’s self and are formed in response to experiencing chronic trauma in early childhood, while we are still forming a sense of self and developing. By dissociating and compartmentalising their personality into alters, people with DID find a way to cope with the trauma they experience.

DID is not the supernatural phenomena this film wishes to portray it as, and DID is not characterised by aggression or violence. It is a mental illness that people all across the world have, developed as a coping mechanism, and these people may be more reluctant to seek treatment due to the stigma films like Split will reinforce.

Unfortunately, this demonisation of mental illness, especially psychotic illnesses or personality disorders, doesn’t start and end with Split. The media routinely misrepresents mental illnesses, whether it’s through explaining a murderer’s actions as them being “mentally ill”, using psychiatric settings as backdrops for horror movies or games, or vilifying an antagonist by making them mentally ill. This blatant (dis)ableism has resulted in stigma surrounding mental illness: people with psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are deemed dangerous “psychos”, outcast from society and subjected to violence; and disorders such as depression and anxiety are not taken seriously. The knock-on effect this has on how confident people with mental illness are in seeking help and being open with their conditions is extremely detrimental to their recovery and/or ability to cope. And it all stems from misinformation breeding further ignorance.

Accurate representation is needed in order to cultivate an understanding of mental illness in all its complexity and humanity. It is not just desirable, but necessary. Research has shown the vitality of support networks for people with mental illnesses, and when the media shifts its perception of mental illness, societal acceptance will follow. A film as obviously misinformed and demonising as Split is not just unneeded, but dangerous. The last thing people with DID (and by extension any mental illness) need to see is a neurotypical actor who is pretending to have their condition shape-shift into a literal monster on-screen. Especially when the real danger is not mentally ill people; it’s what neurotypical people can do with a skewed understanding of their struggles.