By Nicole Royle
Graphic by Luis Molina
The M. Night Shyamalan movie Split follows Kevin (played by James McAvoy), who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID). The film has created controversy in the mental health community because of its violent and fear-provoking depiction of this very real mental disorder.
In 1994 the diagnosis of multiple (or split) personality disorder was renamed to DID as a result of more thorough studies being conducted. Rather than multiple personalities being active in the same brain, DID is diagnosed as fragments that are still part of a person’s singular identity. These fragments are known as “alters.”
Matt Cahill, a Toronto-based author and psychotherapist, has spent 20 years in Toronto’s film industry. Cahill recognizes the challenge in diagnosing and treating DID, not only is each patient different, but DID is a sensitive disorder and has to be treated as such.
Cahill’s time in the film industry gave him an understanding of the creation side of films. He knows how easy it is for mainstream media to use mental health issues as a means to villify a character.
Cahill explains that Hollywood takes these “very real, very complex and very human health problems so that it makes it easy for us to categorize people into good guys and bad guys.” He also notes the result of this is a lack of caring for the villain once they inevitably fail or even die.
This characterization doesn’t promote a realistic understanding of DID. Cahill, among other psychologists, argues that although Shyamalan doesn’t claim to create factual movies, films are often the only representations people are exposed to. Not only does this influence society’s view of mental illness, but it affects the perceptions of those suffering as well.
“If the only depictions of mental issues are ones in which the person can’t be saved because they’re evil,” Cahill said. “That doesn’t exactly encourage people to seek help.”
Marcia Weiner is another Toronto psychologist who treats people living with DID. Weiner is not happy with Shyamalan’s new film and claims that it is not only inaccurate but also fear provoking.
Kevin’s four violent alters in the film are an extremely rare occurrence in reality. Weiner has worked with DID for 35 years and has never had a violent patient or been concerned for the safety of those involved with her patients.
“What people end up feeling is scared–scared of anybody with a mental disorder. What you see in the film is so uncommon,” Weiner said.
DID is usually developed in the early stages of a person’s life as a means of coping with trauma. Weiner describes a young child living with severe abuse on a daily basis. She explains that the only way this child can get up and go to school like a regular kid is to push that scary reality away and create an alter that can be that normal kid.
“It’s really more about understanding what has to happen for people to become dissociative,” Weiner said.
Shyamalan’s film, although criticized by the mental health community, has received positive reviews from critics and made over $55 million USD in box office sales. Jim Slotek, Toronto Sun reporter, praised the film for its directing and describes it as “admirably lurid.”
Slotek began his review by pointing out a lack of genius in Shyamalan’s films and his “B-movie suspense.” He wrote that although the last few attempts from Shyamalan have been misses, Split is finally a hit and that Shyamalan is “not trying anything new, but does it all well.”
“My understanding of a B-movie is one where certainly one or more elements are preposterous,” Slotek said. “You’re keenly aware that what you’re watching is fiction.”
Split isn’t the first film to use an inaccurate depiction of mental illness to frame an antagonist and it won’t be the last. There is an argument to be made about looking to the receiving end of these depictions; the dialogue and directing of the movie are so obviously dramatized that a person can’t possibly take them as fact.
“It turned into a mutant movie by the end,” Slotek said. “It’s hard to deal with it as a realistic issue within the context of that movie.”
But what if audiences do see it this way? When an audience has no other experience with DID than what they watch on the big screen, Cahill argues, even subconsciously they will follow and adapt to what they are seeing.
“You’re basically going to have this precedent whether or not you think it’s accurate. But you don’t have anything else to work with,” Cahill explained. “So I kind of think it’s going to inform how people look at DID in particular and mental health in general.”
As someone who is informed on mental health issues, however, Cahill sees this movie as “a nice bit of writing rather than anything (he) would take too seriously.”
So it can be said that the dangers of films like Split lay in uninformed audiences. With more awareness and more outlets for information on serious mental illnesses, such as DID, audiences would be able to take a shallow approach to these types of movies.
“As people become more aware of how affected every single person is (by representations of mental illness) they become better able to spot movie fakery,” Slotek agrees. “The answers are off-screen, not on.”