How is Multiple personality disorder (DID) shown in TV shows?

In this blog post, we will talk about what Multiple personality disorder (DID) is, its signs and symptoms, treatment, and then we will move on to talk about TV shows which depict this disorder.

How is Multiple personality disorder (DID) shown in TV shows?

There have been several depictions of Multiple Personality disorder in TV shows and series like DID in Sybil, Monsters inside, united states of Tara, split, psycho, etc. 

But before we dive deep into that we should familiarize ourselves with this disorder. 

What is Multiple personality disorder? 

Now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID) and previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a condition in which a person develops two or more distinct personalities sometimes referred to as alternate personalities or sub-personalities. Each personality has a unique set of emotions, memories, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Multiple personality disorder (now DID) falls under the class of Dissociative disorders in DSM-5 that are featured by discontinuity and/or disruption from the normal integration of consciousness, personal identity, emotion, memory, self-perception motor control, behavior, and body representation. 

This disorder is characterized by the” switching” of alternate personalities, sometimes in a dramatic fashion. These disorders are close to the class of trauma and stress-related disorders as dissociative disorders are frequently found in the aftermath of trauma and the embarrassment around the trauma, including the desire to hide them. 

In clinical populations, the prevalence of multiple personality disorder is estimated to be in the range from 0.5 to 1.0% (Maldonado, Butler, & Spiegel, 2002). In the general population, however, the prevalence is estimated to be somewhat higher, ranging from 1-5% (Rubin & Zorumski, 2005). Females are more likely to receive a diagnosis of DID and the ratio is at 9:1 (Lewis-Hall, 2002). 

The reason why females are diagnosed with DID more than males might have something to do with the fact that the rate of abuse is especially larger towards females than males.

Causes and risk factors

As mentioned above dissociative disorders usually occur in response to major stressful events and the trauma accompanying it. The condition most often occurs in children who have been exposed to long-term physical, or psychological abuse, sexual, or, rarely, to a horrific or highly unpredictable family environment. 

The stress during the war and natural disasters can also cause dissociative disorders. Since personal identities are not yet formed in childhood, it enables a child to put themselves out there, more than an adult could, and observe trauma as if it is happening to a different person. 

Children who learn to dissociate to withstand traumatic experiences can use this coping mechanism in response to similar stressful situations throughout their lives. The dissociative identity can be stemming from an urge to protect themselves from painful memories.

The risk factors include long-term experiences of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse during childhood. Other traumatic events such as natural disasters, torture, kidnapping, looking at a lot of emotional suffering, and exposure to poor living conditions, war, etc. may also lead to this condition.

Signs and symptoms of Multiple personality disorder (Now DID)

The Signs and symptoms of multiple identity disorder are as follows:

  • Sometimes, there can be memory loss (amnesia) of certain time periods, events, people, and personal information
  • There is a sense of being detached from the personal self and emotions.
  • The perception of the people and things in their surroundings might appear distorted.
  • There is a blurred sense of identity.
  • There is significant stress or problems in their relationships, work, or other personal areas of life.
  • There is an inability to cope well during emotional or professionally stressful situations.
  • DID might also co-occur with other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts and behaviors etc. 

Multiple personality disorder (DID) has been traditionally thought to be rare. Some researchers still disagree with the existence of such a disorder and do not accept it as a separate diagnosis. While these arguments are supported by the fact that many of these sub personalities come to the attention of doctors while the patient is already being treated for some other mental health disorders, this is not true in all cases. 

There are many individuals who come forward for treatment because they notice significant time lapses in their lives which they may or may not be aware of. People around them, friends and family also notice these sudden and often dramatic changes. This disorder is usually diagnosed during the late teens. In the last few decades, the existence of such cases has been increasing.


Treatment of multiple personality disorder (now DID)

  • Psychotherapy

The primary treatment for dissociative disorders is psychotherapy which is sometimes also referred to as talk therapy. Counselling or psychosocial therapy are the other forms within psychotherapy that involve talking about the disorder and everything related to the issue with a mental health professional. 

A therapist with advanced training and experience in working with people who have experienced trauma is often the best choice of dissociative disorder treatment.

Treatment for this pattern of disorder is complex. 

Therapists usually try to help the patients in three steps :

(1) Recognizing the nature of their disorder, 

(2) trying to fill or recover the gaps in their memory, and finally, 

(3) integrating all the sub personalities into one functional personality which is present at any given time.

Once a person is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), therapists try to bond with the primary personality and also with all other sub personalities (Howell, 2011). Once the bonds are made by the therapists, they further try to educate clients and guide them in recognizing and understanding the complete picture of their disorder.

After this, therapists can help people recover the missing pieces of their past, by applying a number of approaches or a combination of these approaches such as psychodynamic therapy, hypnotherapy, and drug treatment. 

This can prove to be a difficult and slow process as at times, one of the sub personalities may become a “protector” who, when “switched” denies the experiences of trauma. 

It basically is a coping mechanism which keeps the individual from confronting their painful memories. Once this is broken, the final goal is to integrate/merge the different personalities into one single identity. This again may require the approaches of psychodynamic therapy, cognitive therapy, hypnotherapy, or/along with drug therapy.

If you’re facing this, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a therapist or other mental health professional. You can find a therapist at BetterHelp who can help you learn how to cope and address it.

  • Medication

Although there are no specified medications that can be used to treat dissociative disorders, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or antipsychotic drugs that can help control the symptoms associated with DID. 

TV shows and movies based on multiple personality disorder (now DID)

  • Sybil

Sybil is a two-part television film and was probably the earliest depictions seen based on dissociative identity disorder, which back then was called multiple personality disorder. The show aired in the year 1976 and is based on the book released in 1973, named the same.

It describes the real story of teacher Sybil Dorsett (original name – for Shirley Ardell Mason), who exhibited 16 different personalities due to her alleged physical and sexual abuse from her mother. 

Later, in reality, Mason admitted that the personalities were fake, but the two-part film still remains fascinating and one of the first looks at the Sybil case and dissociative identity disorder. After the release of this, the reported cases of multiple personality disorder (now DID) increased and The New York Times described it as “instrumental” as it made dissociative identity disorder a common and accepted diagnosis.

  • Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan

Netflix’s four-part documentary, monsters’ inside, attempts to untangle the story of Billy Milligan, who became the first person to be acquitted for a violent crime after pleading on the basis of criminal insanity. 

Billy was arrested in 1977 for three rapes on Ohio State University’s campus; however, he claimed to have no memory of these crimes. After being taken into custody, he underwent a psychological evaluation and was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder). 

He had 24 distinct identities, each of whom took turns controlling his mind and body. Milligan claimed that one of these personalities committed the rapes. After pleading insanity, he was sent to several psychiatric hospitals to receive treatment and was eventually released. This entire case raised national debate about whether Milligan was just acting or if his multiple personality disorder was real. 

Throughout the documentary, several professionals involved made frequent references to the 1976 Sybil two-part movies mentioned above. It had come out just one year before Milligan’s arrest and was responsible for introducing DID to cultural discussion. It’s one of the most sensational and misunderstood mental disorders, whose workings are yet to be uncovered. Since it is a documentary, the portrayal of the disorder is said to be exactly like how it was recorded back then. 

  • United States of Tara

This show portrays DID in a comedic angle. The show goes on for three-seasons. It follows an artist and mother; Tara Gregson, as she ‘splits’ between her multiple personalities while also trying to maintain a normal life. 

Her personality ranges from a teenager with a flirty nature to a Vietnam vet. The show goes on as Tara and her family contends with whoever she may be presenting at that given moment. The show received praise from critics for portraying DID in a considerably realistic and humane way. 

  • Split

Split is a movie based on DID. The film follows a man with 24 personalities out of which one personality kidnaps three teenage girls. Though the film was praised for the acting, it received huge criticisms for depicting DID in an incorrect fashion. The film dramatized the illness and there was minimum substance.  

  • Psycho 

Similar to split, psycho was another film which had a problematic portrayal of DID, revolving around Norman Bates who starts murdering women after developing an alter personality of his late mother. However, it was considered one of the greatest and was also nominated for Academy Awards.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): How is Multiple personality disorder (DID) shown in TV shows?

What is the other name for multiple personality disorder?

The name multiple personality disorder has now been changed into dissociative identity disorder (DID) in the DSM-5 manual. 

What are the shows revolving around DID?

Apart from the ones mentioned above some other movies and shows are fight club, Shutter Island, me myself and Irene, etc. 

Do personalities have their own memories? 

Each personality can have their own perception of self as a unique individual and do not view themselves as an aspect of a complete person. The thoughts, perceptions, and memories relating to them differ between each and from the world around them.

What can trigger a dissociative identity switch? 

Memories of past abuse or emotional situations, too much stress, substance abuse etc can all cause a “the switch” 

At what age does DID develop? 

Typically, the onset of dissociative symptoms is at the ages of 5 to 10, with the emergence of altars at about the age of 6. However they do not completely manifest until teenage years. 

Are BPD and DID the same?

BPD and DID are two entirely different disorders, BPD is a personality disorder whereas DID is a dissociative disorder. Person suffering from BPD faces issues regulating their moods, face problems in their interpersonal relationships, and also have a fear of abandonment. People with DID report to have two or more identities/personalities. 


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Howell, E. F. (2011). Understanding and treating dissociative identity disorder: A rational approach. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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