What M. Night Shyamalan's 'Split' Got Wrong About Mental Illness

Horror movie or just horribly inaccurate?

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If you haven't seen Split, the latest thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan starring James McAvoy, you might want to pass. It's not that the movie is bad, per se… it just stigmatizes an entire segment of the population. You know, insignificant stuff.

I was excited to see Split. (I love James McAvoy. I even had his face printed on a t-shirt in high school — don't judge.) But the film disturbed me, and not in the way a horror movie should.

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I was offended by the depiction of McAvoy's villain character, who has 23 different (creepy) personalities as a symptom of his dissociative identity disorder (DID), a mental illness more commonly referred to as multiple personality disorder. The grotesque antagonist kidnaps three girls for unknown, sinister reasons, and the girls then plot their escape by pitting his personalities against each other.

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Obviously this is a fictional movie, not a documentary. Its primary purpose is to entertain — and it does. But that's also the problem. Much like the fantasy in Harry Potter is just that — fantasy — Split is a sci-fi thriller with little basis in reality. The issue doesn't stem from Split's identity as a horror film, it comes from the crutch it uses to achieve terror — an irresponsible, violent depiction of mental illness.

Mental Illness ≠ Violence

It's a common myth that people with mental illnesses are violent. A 2006 national survey found that 60 percent of Americans thought people who have schizophrenia are more likely to commit violent crimes than people who do not have mental illness. But only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are actually committed by people with a serious mental illness, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The majority of violent crimes are committed by people without mental illness, and the majority of people with mental illness do not commit violent crime," says David Spiegel, MD, associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford.

In fact, people with mental illness are actually more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators, says Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, clinical psychologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and expert in forensic psychology. And people with DID have an especially low likelihood of committing acts of violence, according to soon-to-be-published research by Bethany Brand, PhD, clinical psychologist at Towson University and dissociative disorders specialist.

Multiple Personalities Make for Misleading Movies

DID is misunderstood — even among experts. It's hotly contested in the medical community. Some doctors don't even believe DID is real, Dr. Dvoskin says.

Maybe it's the disorder's mysteriousness that makes it a go-to Hollywood plot point. DID first caused waves in 1976 in Sybil and has taken off since, debuting in psychological thrillers like Shutter Island, Fight Club, and even The Lego Movie.

Despite its many media cameos, DID is rare. It's hard to know the precise number, but the DSM-5 reports that DID affects 1.5 percent of people worldwide. (Some perspective: 18.5 percent of the U.S. population has a mental illness). Though McAvoy's character does present some actual DID symptoms, including having more than two distinct personalities and the likelihood that his illness stems from childhood trauma, his most prevalent "symptom" — violence — is not on the diagnostic list. Nor is his villainous super strength, which is just... no.

Why Should We Care?

Some are boycotting Split, and experts are concerned that the movie stigmatizes those with DID, who already have a 70 percent suicide attempt rate, according to the DSM-5.

"This movie creates a distorted impression that people with DID harbor an inner sociopath who is dangerous to others," Dr. Spiegel says.

But Split does a disservice to more than just those with DID: It adds to the broader misinformation and sense of shame surrounding all mental health issues and encourages the general public to panic for no reason.

So maybe see La La Land instead — a little bit of singing never hurt anybody.

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