'Split' Adds To The Stigma Around Mental Illness

Universal Pictures

When individuals and organizations work so hard to eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it's difficult to forgive a movie like Split for irresponsibly feeding into it. Split, which premieres on Jan. 20, sees writer/director M. Night Shyamalan utilize mental illness as a plot device, just as he did in 2015's The Visit. Now, he presents a villainous character who's been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a condition formerly known as "Multiple Personality Disorder." In Split, James McAvoy plays Kevin, who sets off a violent chain of events when one of his selves abducts three young women. In actuality, of course, the mentally ill are not monsters, and Split is reckless in its depiction of a very real disorder. Spoilers for Split are ahead.

The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) states that individuals who suffer from dissociative disorders experience "an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory." In Split, Kevin's therapist believes he developed his 23 personalities as a means of survival. He was abused by his mother as a child; to live with it, he had to develop a method of mentally separating himself from it. According to NAMI, abuse and trauma are often the cause of dissociative disorders, so this isn't too far from reality. Past stress or ongoing stress can result in patients selectively forgetting certain events, detaching rather than personalizing their experiences, or developing separate and distinct identities.

Yet Split combines truth and fiction and, in doing so, blurs the line between the two. It's not sufficient that the film empathizes with Kevin, and understands that he's not always a cruel person, just someone who's had a tough go of it. But by taking the blame away from Kevin, it's put onto the illness, instead. At the end of Split (spoiler alert) Kevin debuts a 24th personality: a superhuman cannibalistic killing machine dubbed "The Beast." His DID literally turns Kevin in a monster. The misunderstanding of mental illness — especially rare disorders like this one — is already a severe societal problem, and Split isn't helping by associating the mentally ill with the villainous supernatural, further "othering" them.

Split tries to say something profound about abuse and resilience, but the message never quite gets through. One of Kevin's captives is Casey, a young woman who has been sexually and physically terrorized by her uncle since she was a child. Casey is portrayed as being smart, tough, and capable, which contrasts against Kevin's coping mechanism. Is Casey meant to be stronger than Kevin? Is his illness a symptom of existing weakness? The connotations are there, but it's never enough to make an actual, worthwhile point.

Dissociative disorders may be fascinating to filmmakers, but they're painful to the people who experience them. (2 percent of the population, per NAMI.) There's an embarrassing history of generic, mid-level thrillers springing an alternate personality on the audience or several in place of a genuinely imaginative twist, from Secret Window to Hide & Seek to Identity. Each one of these films portrays DID as a way for the sufferers to section off their vengeful thoughts and impulses. By design, they characterize people diagnosed with DID as dangerous and consumed with ill intent, when that's not, in reality, the case.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, people with DID are most dangerous to themselves, not others. Associated behaviors include cutting and substance abuse. A shocking 70 percent of people with DID attempt suicide. With that statistic in mind, the sensationalization of the illness via Split and movies like it seems especially irresponsible.

Split muddles the already problematic public perception of mental illness, particularly dissociative disorders. And with stigma can come discrimination, isolation, and the stricken not seeking treatment for fear of being ostracized. It's past time for the entertainment industry to weed out inaccurate and offensive portrayals of mental illness, as they can do real harm to real lives.