Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a mental health condition that causes much controversy in the medical world. The disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder, is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personalities that alternately control a person’s behavior.
Of course, everyone dissociates occasionally. “Zoning out” while doing homework, for example, is not uncommon among college students. This normal human habit turns into a disorder only when it begins to regularly affect feelings, memories, perception and a general sense of self. It becomes a way to cope with painful situations, allowing the patient to escape by having “someone else” deal with the trauma.
Many people are aware of the famous and controversial case of Shirley Ardell Mason, better known under the alias “Sybil” from the feature film “Sybil” and the book by the same name. Mason supposedly had 16 different personalities as a result of severe child abuse. Her situation was ultimately determined to be fraudulent after evidence was found that her psychiatrist deliberately attempted to draw out multiple personalities. The mentally unstable Mason was looking for attention and an answer to her psychiatric questions and therefore found it easy to believe that she had “multiple personalities” living inside of her, controlling her life.
Before her case received public attention with the movie and book, only 75 cases of dissociative identity disorder had been reported. Afterwards, upwards of 40,000 diagnoses have been made. This case, among several others, dramatically shaped public opinion of the disease and can arguably be called a primary cause of it.
It is my opinion that DID is a result of social construction, psychiatric persuasion and suggestible personalities. That’s not to say, however, that I believe that patients are faking their personalities or that psychiatrists have malicious intent. I believe that this diagnosis is primarily a product of social influence and overanalyzed introspection.
Most people question their sense of self at one point or another; it is part of the human condition. We feel a spectrum of emotions, question our judgment, wonder why we act certain ways. These fluctuations, however, do not necessarily demand medical diagnosis, because we all experience them. It is especially easy to latch onto the idea, however, because one is then able to pass the blame on to “other people.”
I believe that most psychiatrists are trying to be helpful in suggesting multiple personalities. It can be easier to examine each emotion and occurrence on its own instead of examining the person as a whole in every psychotherapy session. However, psychiatrists could cause permanent psychological damage when they single out someone’s “angry side” and label it as “a different person.” While trying to help the patient better understand their behavior, they could actually cause them to feel helpless and detached from said behaviors.
We as a society have created this disorder. This is not to say that DID doesn’t exist, or that the patients are faking their personalities, but rather that this disorder is primarily a result of societal ideas of self. I encourage those suffering to seek help, and I believe that we should all be empathetic to their plight. However, I fundamentally believe that we are responsible for causing identity crises to become a serious mental disorder because we’ve defined them as such.
Megan Crants is a junior Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science double major from Nashville, Tenn. She is the science columnist for TheNews-Letter.