Note: There are often both physical and spiritual aspects involved in psychological maladies. While we believe psychologists often miss the spiritual nature of the sickness, we strongly encourage anyone suffering with mental illness to seek medical attention and counseling.
Answer: The Bible does not specifically address dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder (MPD). These are medical terms for a very rare dissociative disorder characterized by a severe lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity (WebMD Medical Reference, reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, M.D., accessed 4/30/20). The result is that various distinct identities or personalities emerge one at a time to control the victim’s behavior. The disorder was renamed from multiple personality disorder to dissociative identity disorder in 1994 and is now thought to be more of a fragmentation of identity than a proliferation of separate personalities (“Dissociative Identity Disorder,” www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder, accessed 4/30/20).
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, dissociative disorders such as DID “most often form in children exposed to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse” (www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Dissociative-Disorders, accessed 4/30/20). Modern research indicates that dissociative identity disorder is likely caused by a person’s response to repeated, strong interpersonal and environmental stress, especially when that stress comes during the early developmental years of childhood.
The appearance of multiple “personalities” is common in dissociative identity disorder. “Each identity may have a unique name, personal history and characteristics, including obvious differences in voice, gender, mannerisms and even such physical qualities as the need for eyeglasses. There also are differences in how familiar each identity is with the others” (www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dissociative-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20355215, accessed 4/30/20). Some who suffer from DID report feeling they are “possessed” when one of their identities takes control. They might even experience themselves in a sort of out-of-body state (www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder, accessed 4/30/20). It’s this characteristic of DID, along with the tendency to self-harm, that causes some people to see a link between DID and what the Bible calls demon possession.
Demon possession is not something Western culture today typically addresses except indirectly through horror movies. We tend to provide medical evaluations and look for scientific explanations for all disorders. Sometimes this is helpful, and we should pursue medical treatments in every case, but we should also address the possible spiritual root of mental health problems.
The Gospels and the book of Acts talk of people having “evil spirits” and “demons,” with Jesus and His apostles having authority to cast them out and heal those possessed (for example, see Mark 5:1–20; 9:14–29; Luke 4:32–33; and Acts 19:11–17). “At that very time [Jesus] cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits” (Luke 7:21). Sometimes, the description of demon possession in the Bible sounds much like dissociative identity disorder, with the possessed person exhibiting altered behavior and the demon acknowledging itself as a personality distinct from the victim. But, since the Bible does not give us guidelines to distinguish between demon possession and a psychological disorder, we should assume that we are not called to draw rigid conclusions.
Spiritual matters, especially in regard to mental health issues, are difficult to discern. No doubt many people with dissociative identity disorder are victims of a coping mechanism gone awry, especially when the disorder started in childhood. Working through the trauma with a trained counselor can allow them to reintegrate the personality and experience some freedom. But the possibility also exists that people with DID may be victims of demonic influence, if not outright possession. Even in cases when those diagnosed with DID are seeking escape from a painful past, they are not turning to God but to an “alter” personality to deal with a root of evil that has stolen part of themselves. Handling trauma apart from God plays into the hands of the devil, who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).
There is certainly a spiritual battle going on all around us, and believers are instructed to put on the full armor of God and stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10–18). We are also instructed to discern and test the spirits, especially in the realm of false teaching they may propagate (1 John 4:1–3, Matthew 7:15–20). And we know that it is impossible for a Christian to be possessed by a demon. The believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God who comes to reside in our hearts when we give our lives to Christ (2 Corinthians 1:22). A child of God who is suffering symptoms of dissociative identity disorder is not demon possessed.
We can’t say definitively that anyone with dissociative identity disorder is demon possessed or that dissociative identity disorder is a manifestation of demonic activity on some level. Demon possession is a possibility that should not be discounted, but it is not always the case.
What we can say definitively is that God can help us through trauma, anxiety, depression, and dealing with painful past experiences. God is our ultimate Healer and Counselor. David wrote in the midst of his distress, “Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4:1), and by the end of his prayer he had found his answer: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (verse 8). In faith, we stay in the Word and cry out to God in prayer. We also make use of the resources He provides: we urge anyone with symptoms of DID or who is working through painful memories to meet with a pastor or Christian counselor as well as a medical doctor.