Multiple personality disorder: Hype or Epidemic?

In the medieval times people with any kind of behavioural abnormality were thought to be witches and warlocks and classified as outcasts. Typically these people were tortured and sentenced to death. Back then disorders such as schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder scared the masses, however, nowadays modern medicine offers the means for correct diagnosis and treatment of these diseases.

Today, we will talk about dissociative personality disorder (formally known as multiple personality disorder). The story behind the name change of this disorder is very interesting and a lot of lessons can be learned from it.

Ready to learn more? Let’s start with the symptoms.

Symptoms and causes

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) together with dissociative amnesia and depersonalization/derealization disorder is a type of dissociative disorders.

In DID, a person loses their perception of themselves and so, their personality becomes split - into two more multiple personalities. These personalities have their own distinctive voices, habits, mannerisms and even gender. Patients with DID switch between their personalities and typically experience memory gaps in daily memories and personal information. (1)

Many people confuse DID with schizophrenia because they share some similar symptoms. However, they are two very separate disorders. In DID, patients have a split personality. In Schizophrenia, patients are detached from reality during an episode of psychosis. They may experience a change in thought and emotion, hear or feel things that aren't real or believe things that can't be real.

The causes of DID and schizophrenia are also different. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that schizophrenia is a genetic disorder. (2) Additionally, external factors like substance abuse such as smoking marijuana at early teenage years can cause the onset of schizophrenia. It has even been reported that maternal exposure to viruses and poor diet during the first two trimesters of their pregnancy can cause schizophrenia in their offspring. (2)

DID, on the other hand, was not been linked to a genetic cause. In many cases this disorder is caused by the very traumatic event in early childhood - events like physical and sexual abuse or military combat.

Eve and Sybil

Eva and Sybil and their diagnosis are believed to be the cause of the increasing "popularity" of DID in the middle of the last century.

The book called “The three faces of Eve”, which was published in the 50s, became a huge success and millions of copies were sold in the US and all around the world. The book describes the life of a housewife that experienced frequent headaches and short-term memory loss. Her case was taken by Doctor Luther, who quickly realised that Eve had three distinct personalities. According to the book, Doctor Luther managed to cure Eve, which then turned out to be not the case. In 1977, Eve published her book "I am Eve", where she reveals her name true name and tells the world that she was not cured at all.

On the pictures represented above you can see the covers of "The three faces of Eve" (1957), "Sybil" (1973), "Sybil" movie (1976), "Sybil" movie (2007) and "The three faces of Eve" movie (1957).

“The three faces of Eve” sparked the interest in multiple personality disorder of many psychologists in the USA. However, the true case of mass hysteria began in 1973 after the release of the book “Sybil” by a journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber. This book described the case of Sybil Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason), who allegedly had 16 personalities! Sybil was diagnosed by her psychoanalyst, Cornelia B. Wilbur.

The story of Sybil became a hit, which led to a massive increase in reported cases of multiple personalities disorder.

Before the 70s there were about 100 registered cases of multiple personality disorder, in the 80s the number of diagnoses grew to 8,000 all around the world!

Epidemic or hype

After the story of Sybil became known to the world, almost every psychiatrist in Europe and America had at least one patient with the multiple personality disorder. This epidemic raised a lot of suspicion and many journalists and psychiatrists started digging.

It took 10 years to find out that 1000s of patients were misdiagnosed just because their Doctors wanted to gain fame by reporting their methods of treating a disorder with a “sexy” name. Between the 50s and the 90s, multiple personality disorder was diagnosed by hypnosis sessions and administering hypnotic substances.

In 2012, Debbie Nathan revealed the truth about Sybil in her bestseller book “Sybil exposed”. It turned out that Sybil - or Shirley - was a victim of neglect in her early childhood. After meeting with her therapist Cornelia Wilber, Shirley received a lot of attention and very soon she became emotionally and financially dependent on Dr. Wilber. Shirley was eager to “help her doctor” in her research and provided all the answers that Dr. Wilber wanted to hear. Wilber also instigated traumatic memories in Shirley’s mind by regular injections of sodium pentothal (also known as the truth serum).

To make matters worse, they found Shirley’s letter written to Dr. Wilber, where she confesses that she made up all of her symptoms and that Wilder should not publish her book… Alas, the book was published anyway and spiked the number of misdiagnosed people.

It is important to note, that the false findings by Dr. Wilber and other psychiatrists do not mean the disease does not exist, but instead that the actual number of patients with multiple personality disorder is significantly lower than was diagnosed at the end of the last century and the beginning of this century.

The release of “Sybil exposed” led to a myriad of lawsuits by misdiagnosed people. The name of the disease got stigmatised and eventually, the scientific community decided to give it a new name: dissociative identity disorder.

The story of Sybil is a bright example of the damage that social and mass media, in an attempt to sensationalise a disease (and science in general), can do.

  1. Rehan MA, Kuppa A, Ahuja A, et al. A strange case of dissociative identity disorder: are there any triggers? Cureus. 2018;10(7):e2957. doi:10.7759/cureus.2957

  2. Patel KR, Cherian J, Gohil K, Atkinson D. Schizophrenia: overview and treatment options. P T. 2014;39(9):638-45. PMID:25210417

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