Split’s depiction of mental illness divides movie fans


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Split Movie

“Split,” a movie depicting a man with multiple personalities, sparked debate among both mental health advocacy groups and film societies after premiering this month. 

The movie, starring James McAvoy, dominated the box office this month, grossing $79 million. Even with such success, viewers are split on the legitimacy of the movie, which depicts those with dissociative identity disorder (DID) as violent. 

A Care2 Petition with over 22,000 signatures protested against M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” for depicting a backwards representation of mental illness. In the movie, McAvoy’s character  kidnaps three girls and commits violent acts as a result of his illness. 

Mehdia Mrabet, treasurer of UT’s Film Admiration Society, said she was disgusted by the portrayal of mental illness in “Split.”

“It’s not just movies that do this ... intrinsically linking mental illness to violence,” Mrabet said. “Movies like this just make it worse - there are better ideas. If you’re going to do something with a marginalized identity, you need to handle it with delicacy.”

However, not all students feel the same way. April Alvarado, UT El Paso education sophomore, said she wasn’t bothered by the use of DID in the movie.

“I wasn’t offended. It’s a movie, so of course the outbursts are dramatized,” Alvarado said. “I think that instead of getting offended or causing controversy, people should take from the movie that we should try to help those who have severe mental disorders by getting them the assistance and medication they may need.”

DID, previously known as multi-personality disorder, is defined as a lack of connection between a person’s thoughts, actions and sense of identity, according to WebMD. An individual who has experienced severe trauma may use alternate “identities” as a coping mechanism to dissociate themselves from the event. 

“Dissociative identity disorder is a legitimate mental disorder in the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” Raymond Hawkins, UT clinical psychology lecturer, said.

Hawkins added that in general, the media’s portrayal of mental illness is mediocre at best.

The diagnosis itself is controversial because some believe it stems from a similar disorder called borderline personality disorder, which displays less extreme symptoms. Miranda Jane, an Austin counselor who specializes in dissociative disorders, believes that DID and borderline personality disorder are distinct. 

“In DID, dissociation becomes chronic, and particular states of being, or ‘identities,’ emerge to handle life almost as a ‘designated driver’ while big parts of a person’s mind are not accessible,” Jane said. “It’s a defensive response that’s particularly helpful in circumstances where severe injury and possible death are unavoidable.”

Only 3 to 5 percent of people diagnosed with mental illness commit violent crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services. In fact, studies show that those with DID are more likely to hurt themselves than others. 

Despite this controversy, “Split” received a ‘fresh’ rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Shyamalan recently responded to the community’s offense by citing zero issues with viewers who saw the film. Shyamalan told Yahoo Movies that the character is meant to be empathized with and does not demonize the illness. 

“We also turn the premise from horror to the psychology of what the human brain is capable of - that’s the journey of the movie,” Shyamalan told Yahoo Movies. “So you come away with a feeling of benevolence and complication, the good and bad of everything.” 

James McAvoy, who has not responded directly to the controversy, told the website Den of Geek that he prepared for the role by reading diaries of people who suffered from the disorder. 

Alton Braxton, president of UT’s Film Admiration Society, said he believes “Split” is offensive but that Hollywood is taking a step in the right direction. He said the movie is on the Film Admiration Society’s agenda of things to discuss this semester.

“I feel like Hollywood has at least gotten close to getting this right by putting the character with the mental illness as the protagonist,” Braxton said. “It’s a character that audience members sympathize (with) and root for, but in the end, can be portrayed as predatory and dangerous. Shyamalan does that a lot.”