The Importance of Accuracy in Media Representations of Mental Illness

I’ve recently seen a lot of buzz on social media around Leonardo DiCaprio‘s decision to play Billy Milligan in the upcoming film “The Crowded Room”.

For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Billy Milligan was the first person to successfully use Multiple Personality Disorder (now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder) as a part of an insanity defense in court. Milligan was diagnosed with MPD and found to have 24 different personality states. This diagnosis came after an evaluation by a team of psychologists in preparation for his defense against several violent crimes, including armed robbery and rape. Milligan’s attorney claimed that his female lesbian alter, Adalana, was responsible for the three rapes he was charged with and a Yugoslavian communist alter named Ragen committed the robberies.

Here’s the thing, I understand that this is a true story. Milligan was said to have suffered early childhood abuse consistent with the development of dissociative disorders. And he was legitimately diagnosed with MPD/DID. So in that respect, this is admittedly a refreshing departure from the use of DID as the “plot twist” wherein someone pretends to have DID for the sake of getting away with a crime (I’m thinking specifically of Edward Norton’s character in “Primal Fear“).

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Which, by the way, the idea that DID patients are all fakers is a tremendous stereotype surrounding DID. I remember when I first started searching for information on the disorder. I was immediately inundated with research papers and websites about how to tell whether someone is “really” dissociative or just pretending to be. Seriously. Here is one little gem for you:

“While most psychologists demonstrated belief that DID is a valid diagnosis, 38% believed that DID either likely or definitely could be created through the therapist’s influence, and 15% indicated that DID could likely or definitely develop as a result of exposure to various forms of media (Cormier & Thelen, 1998).”

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