By: Dr. Gabriel Andrade
Part of our job as medical educators is to correct many myths that abound in popular media about disorders and treatments. Out of all subjects in medical education, psychology is probably the one that is most vulnerable to popular misconceptions.
As a Behavioral Science professor at Xavier University School of Medicine, the one psychological misconception that I consistently come across in my daily interactions with students is about Dissociative Identity Disorder (or, as it is also commonly known, Multiple Personality Disorder). In this disorder, the patient develops one or more additional personalities as a defense mechanism. It usually happens as a result of some traumatic experience in the past; the patient somehow tries to overcome that experience by dissociating themselves from the trauma, and assuming a new personality.
Dissociative Identity Disorder is a very controversial diagnosis. No psychiatrist puts in doubt its existence. But, many scholars do doubt that it may actually have something to do with dissociation. It is more likely that this disorder is actually induced by unsuspecting mental health workers. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have preconceived ideas about traumas in infancy, repressed memories, dissociation, and multiple personalities, and project those ideas onto their patients. If the patients are easily suggestable, they may assume the ideas suggested by the therapists and, as a result, develop multiple personalities.
Media exposure may have something to do with it. Every year, Hollywood releases films about people with multiple personalities. Most of these films are not realistic at all, yet captivate audiences. Ever since films about Dissociative Identity Disorder became popular, the number of cases grew dramatically. Until the mid-20th Century, there were only about one hundred cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder in the entire history of psychiatry. By the 1980s, when Hollywood made it one of its favorite subjects, there were tens of thousands of cases. Strangely, Dissociative Identity Disorder was only reported in Western societies; that is, precisely those societies that are exposed to Hollywood films.
Nevertheless, mere suggestibility is not enough to develop multiple personalities. Patients who are diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have a history of depression and anxiety. It is difficult to induce multiple personalities on someone who has a robust mental health. Yet, media exposure seems to be a significant factor.
It is difficult to be precise about how many cases have been due to real dissociation, and how many cases came about as a result of media influence and psychiatric malpractice. However, the sudden rise of cases ever since movies about this condition became popular allows us to suppose that the media does have an influence in most cases.