Schizophrenia as Split Personality- Where Does the Myth Come From?

Recently, at the Media Action Group for Mental Health, we have been formulating some ideas for our "Local People, Local Lives" campaign. As part of our project we will be producing postcards showing various artworks produced by the volunteers in our group of places in our locality of Stoke-on-Trent. The postcards will also have an anti-stigma message, and attempt to bring about a change in attitudes towards mental ill health. As we discussed how we would go about doing this, it became clear to us that one of the most pervasive and persistent myths about schizophrenic illness was that it is often viewed as a "split", or "Jekyll and Hyde", personality. Those who read this blog will know that this common perception of schizophrenia is entirely false, and so we began to wonder just where the misconception came from.
I have often written in this blog that this myth may be due in no small part to the name "schizophrenia" itself, and it appears, that since Bleuler coined the term (which roughly translates from the Greek as "splitting of the mind") there has been confusion over it. It seems that through Bleuler and his translators this myth grew up, and it has persisted ever since. The origins of the "schizophrenia as a split personality" misconception, then, may have been as much to do with the professional interpretation of the illness as simple lay misinterpretation.
Indeed, at the Media Action Group, it was suggested that around the time the term was coined, Freud was also making groundbreaking revelations about the human psyche with his notion of the unconscious, the dark, nether regions of the mind which remain, in our conscious minds, repressed. This fits in rather nicely with Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of the "good", or at least socially proper, Dr. Jekyll, and the "evil", or atavistic and criminal, Mr. Hyde. Perhaps it was that such theories and stories fed into the whole cultural notion of what it was to be human, and such new ideas came to be connected to the "split mind" definition of schizophrenia.
Poster for the 1931 movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

However, this still does not entirely explain why it should be that schizophrenia became directly associated with split personality. It was suggested in our little meeting that schizophrenia is such a complex condition that it probably does not lend itself to any simple interpretation. Unlike bipolar disorder, for example, it is not so easily summed up. So, it is perhaps only logical that the simple, "split personality" notion became an easier way of understanding an illness which, in any case, was surrounded by so much semantic confusion.
What is clear is that, in actuality, schizophrenia has nothing to do with a split personality, as it is understood by the general lay person, and that, through some bizarre slippage in our understanding of the language used to describe the illness, a purely medical term has come to have so many negative associations.   


bazza said…
I am guessing David, that there is some kind of fascination in the common perception of the idea of a split personality.
It certainly has been the basis of a lot of misguided 'humour' and there lots of 'multiple personality disorder' cartoons and jokes on the internet.
David said…
Dear bazza,
I suppose that the point is that schizophrenia is often taken to mean split personality, something more akin to multiple personality disorder (MPD), now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). And certainly, this has been the basis of a lot of poor jokes.
I just wondered where, in fact, this myth originated from, and it would seem that the whole confusion might come from the word "schizophrenia" itself coming to be associated with things like Jekyll and Hyde and, perhaps (but I'm just guessing here), Freud's ideas of the subconcious.
Anyway, bazza, thanks once again for commenting.
Very Best Wishes,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
This might surprise you that I have little to add to your article. All I can really do this time is state that once again, hopefully, you put to rest another popular misconception.
There you go, succinct.
With kind wishes, Gary
David said…
Dear Gary,
Although you have little to add (so unlike you, my hairy friend), I thank you for your continuing kind support. Whatever you say (or don't say), your comments are always welcome here.
Very Best Wishes,
dcrelief said…
Dear David,

This post is interesting; I'm glad you shared this.
Off-hand I think it more glamorous to the 'Hollywood set', and like medias, to use schizophrenia, rather than the truthful multiple-personality disorder. Movies like, "Sybil" and "The three faces of Eve" wrought terror in the American public. A Hollywood goldmine!
It seemed the more they used the incorrect terminology, the more it stuck. Maybe it was Obsessive-compulsive...and now I've lost track of where I was headed with this!
Oh well, very interesting. Thank you, Dixie
David said…
Dear Dixie,
You are so right. I don't know why exactly Hollywood and other medias use the schizophrenia label in this way, other than to induce fear of the condition and those with it. I know of the films you mention, and I recently saw a British film, starring that most terrible of actors, Danny Dyer (A Brit who you may not have heard of), in which he played a "dangerous schizophrenic" who, after escaping from Broadmoor, goes on a murderous rampage. Stuff like that puts my cause, and others, back a long way.
Oh well, Dixie, maybe one day they'll get it right!
Very Best Wishes,

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