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Dissociative identity disorder

3-minute read

Dissociative identity disorder is a type of dissociative disorder. It was previously known as ‘multiple personality disorder’. It is a disturbance in a person’s sense of identity, causing them to feel or observed by others to have 2 or more separate personalities.

Dissociative identity disorder signs and symptoms

A person with dissociative identity disorder can go through dramatic changes in behaviour, appearance and speech patterns from one occasion to the next. They may not remember what they have done for large chunks of time, or people they have met while in a different ‘identity’. The person switches from identity to identity, or feels the presence of 2 or more people living inside their head. Each identity may have its own name and characteristics such as gender, voice and mannerisms. Often each identity emerges to perform a particular role, such as to deal with anger or fear.

The main characteristics of dissociative identity disorder are:

  • A disruption of identity, where the person has 2 or more distinct personality states — this is understood in some cultures or religions as ‘possession’ by a spirit or entity.
  • A change in identity involving altered behaviours, emotions, thoughts, memories and perceptions — these may be observed by others or reported by the individual.
  • Repeated and excessive gaps in memory for everyday events, important personal information, large portions of childhood or traumatic events.
  • Suddenly going into a trance, where the person stares or talks to themselves; experiencing flashbacks and hallucinations.
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, chest pain and abdominal pain.

People with dissociative disorder may also develop other mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, eating disorders or feeling suicidal.

What causes a person to have a split personality?

The main cause of dissociative identity disorder is severe and repeated trauma in childhood, often beginning before the age of 7. This may include verbal, physical or sexual abuse or severe neglect.

Diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder

The diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder is controversial, with some experts debating whether it even exists at all.

If you or someone you care for has symptoms that could suggest dissociative identity disorder, it is best to see a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist with experience of this condition. They will want to talk to you, or the person with the symptoms, to understand what is going on. Find a mental health professional in your region.

There is no single test or symptom that makes the diagnosis clear and simple.

Dissociative identity disorder treatment

The main form of treatment for dissociative identity disorder is long-term psychotherapy. This usually involves frequent and regular sessions with a therapist for a number of years.

Many people with dissociative identity disorder will also have other mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. There is no medicine specifically for dissociative identity disorder, though these other mental health disorders are often treated with medicine.

Not sure what to do next?

If you or someone you know are finding it difficult to manage mental health issues, try healthdirect’s Symptom Checker and get advice on when to seek professional help.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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