Distinguishing Bipolar Disorder from Multiple Personality Disorder

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Bipolar disorder has become something of a mental health buzzword, and the disorder is even sometimes associated with creativity and charisma. This may be due, at least in part, to the number of celebrities and artists who have been publicly open about their own struggles with the condition.

When it comes to multiple personality disorder, however, there still seems to be a cloud of ignorance and confusion. This highlights the need for further education and dialog about both disorders to help improve public awareness, understanding and compassion.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness (MDI), is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Technically, there are four basic types of bipolar affective disorder, but all of them involve changes in mood, energy and activity levels. These changes are marked by their significant variance and include three kinds of behavior, known as episodes:

  • Manic episodes. Periods of extremely elated, “up” and energized behavior characterized by sufficient severity to cause difficulty or impairment in occupational, social, educational or other important functioning. Symptoms also cannot be the result of substance use or abuse (e.g., alcohol, drugs, medications) or caused by a general medical condition.
  • Depressive episodes. Periods of very sad, “down” or hopeless moods characterized by depression and loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities. This mood must represent a change from the person’s normal mood; social, occupational, educational or other important functioning must also be negatively impaired by the change.
  • Hypomanic episodes. Less severe manic periods, which do not cause impairment in social or occupational functioning.

What is Multiple Personality Disorder?

Multiple personality disorder (MPD), which is clinically identified as dissociative identity disorder, is a severe condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in, and alternately take control of, an individual. The person also experiences memory loss that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.

Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by a fragmented identity and a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory and consciousness in a single multi-dimensional self. When in control, each personality state, or alter, may be experienced as if it has a distinct history, self-image and identity.

The alters’ characteristics contrast with those of the primary identity and certain circumstances or stressors can cause a particular alter to emerge. The various identities may deny knowledge of one another, be critical of one another or appear to be in open conflict.

How Are These Two Disorders Different?

Even though these two disorders are completely distinct in their definitions and symptoms, they are still often confused by society at large (along with a third disorder, schizophrenia). There are perhaps numerous reasons for this confusion, but it may largely result from the common use of some of these names in popular media and as shorthand by people referring to someone who is grappling with a mental health issue.

Public confusion notwithstanding, the only significant thing these disorders have in common is the unfortunate fact that many who suffer from them are still stigmatized by society. The disorders differ in several ways:

  • Bipolar disorder does not involve problems with self-identity. Multiple personality disorder causes issues with self-identity, which is split between several identities.
  • Depression is one of the alternating phases of bipolar disorder. People with multiple personality disorder are not depressed initially, and their energy levels are normal. However, sometimes those with MPD may become depressed for a significant period of time, but the depressed state is secondary and is caused by the inability to cope with the core disorder (as opposed to the disorder itself, as with bipolar).
  • Men are more frequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder than women. Conversely, women are more frequently diagnosed with multiple personality disorder than men. Diagnosed women usually have more “personalities” than diagnosed men have.
  • Bipolar disorder does not seem to hinder creativity or concentration and is a common mental illness among artists. On the other hand, few artists are diagnosed with MPD, since it disrupts a person’s ability to focus and be creative by fragmenting their very identity.

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