What Is a Split Personality Disorder?

Officially known as dissociative identity disorder (DID)

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Split personality disorder is a term that is not used in the psychiatric field. The correct term is dissociative identity disorder (DID). DID—as well as other types of dissociative disorders—involves symptoms that often interfere with various areas of a person’s mental functioning. 

split personality disorder

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What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a condition marked by the presence of two or more distinct personality states within one individual. Each of these states may have a unique name and characteristics, including differences in voice, gender, and mannerisms.

This mental health condition, which used to be called multiple personality disorder, is one of the dissociative disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Using the Correct Term

Split personality disorder is not a term used in the psychiatric field. Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is the correct term.

Symptoms

The main symptom of DID is experiencing the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states, sometimes known as alters. The shifting identities happen involuntarily and are often described as being undesirable, causing severe distress or impairment to a person with DID.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of being disconnected or detachment
  • Experiencing a feeling of being outside of one’s body
  • The inability to recall recent events, losing periods of recall
  • An inability to recall childhood memories and personal history
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation

Diagnosis

As with other mental disorders, a diagnosis of DID is most often made by using the criteria defined by the most recent edition of the DSM-5. An in-depth history is taken to assess the person’s symptoms, and the symptoms are compared to the criteria that must be present to justify the specific diagnosis of DID. These criteria include:

  • A disruption of identity involving two or more distinct personality states. The signs and symptoms of the disorder may be observed by others or they may be reported by the person having such symptoms.
  • Having gaps in memory that involve personal information, day-to-day events, and/or traumatic events of the past; these gaps must be ongoing.
  • Experiencing significant distress or problems functioning—on the job, socially, or in other areas—as a result of the symptoms, such as memory loss.
  • The symptoms must not be part of a cultural, spiritual, or religious practice involving altered states of consciousness. 
  • The symptoms are not the result of a substance or other medical condition

Misdiagnosis

Symptoms of DID might be misinterpreted as delusions or hallucinations and mistaken for a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia.

Causes

Although having a history of experiencing a traumatic experience is not required as part of the DSM-5 criteria for being diagnosed with DID, trauma is almost always associated with the disorder.

In fact, some studies report about 90% of the cases of DID involve some history of trauma. Trauma can include:

  • Severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • A natural disaster (such as a tornado or earthquake)
  • Wars
  • A substantial early loss (such as the loss of a parent early in life)
  • Long periods of isolation, early in life (such as social isolation that occurs during a long-term illness)

Often, DID is a result of severe child abuse.

Treatment

Although there isn't a specific type of medication to treat DID, medication may be used to manage co-occurring mood, anxiety, and other symptoms. The main treatment for DID involves different psychotherapy approaches. In fact, several modalities have been proven effective, including:

  • Psychotherapy: Aimed at helping people with DID process emotions and gain control over their symptoms. A goal for psychotherapy is the integration of the separate personality states into a more cohesive sense of self.
  • Behavioral Therapy: Two behavioral treatment modalities found to be successful for people with a DID are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT). These types of behavioral modalities focus on a person’s thoughts and behaviors and managing distressing and overwhelming affects.
  • Hypnosis: Rather than being used to unearth repressed memories (as hypnosis is historically known for), in people with DID, it may be used to help manage symptoms (such as PTSD flashbacks).

Risk Factors

Because of a high rate of suicide in people with DID, part of an effective treatment plan is to observe for signs and symptoms of increased suicidal risk. More than 70% of those with a diagnosis of DID, who participated in outpatient treatment, have attempted suicide.

Seek Help

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping

There are many non-medical coping strategies that reportedly help people with DID. These include:

  • Work to overcome blaming yourself: Keep in mind that any trauma that occurred in the past is not your fault and that having any type of mental health diagnosis is not the result of something you did to deserve having the condition. Psychotherapy and support groups can help with undeserved feelings of self-blame.
  • Do your research: Educating yourself about your disorder helps to empower you to be involved in treatment decisions such as whether to try hypnosis, if you would benefit more from group or individual therapy—or both— and more.
  • Learn self-calming techniques: This will help manage disturbing thoughts and other symptoms on your own. Take advantage of the many types of therapy (such as DBT and CBT) that teach these practical and effective tools to help improve symptoms.
  • Create a calm outer environment: Work to de-clutter your home, office, or other areas while practicing tools to improve interpersonal relationships with friends, coworkers, and family members.
  • Plan ahead and stay organized: With a condition such as DID, it’s vital to keep track of things such as when you take your medications and plan for an unforeseen period of amnesia. 
  • Form a network of support: Having a good support network is crucial to coping with a mental illness such as DID; it’s best to have a variety of people in your network that you feel comfortable sharing your feelings with, such as family members, close friends, and health care providers.

Finding Support

If you are a family member of a person with DID and you don’t have a support group in place, you can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the NAMI Family support group page and enter your zip code, to find face-to-face support groups in your local area. 

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Article Sources
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