In psychology, it is very easy to confuse concepts, since many times the categories used to classify mental phenomena have diffuse limits. Moreover, if you do not have much training in this field of science, it is easy to be left with doubts about what a definition referring to behavior patterns means, something abstract.

In this article we will see what are the differences between bipolarity, schizophrenia and dissociative personality (or dissociative personality disorder), words that do not mean the same thing although they refer to a kind of division between the psychological elements of a person.

Definition of each psychological concept

In order to understand how we can distinguish between these concepts used in clinical psychology and psychiatry, we must first have a definition (albeit a basic one) about these terms. Let’s get to it.

What is bipolarity and bipolar disorder?

Bipolarity is a broad and unofficial concept that refers to bipolar disorder , a diagnostic label that is official as it appears in the main diagnostic manuals in mental health.

In summary, we can say that bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which, without the person intending it or being able to control it, there are stages of depression on the one hand and stages of mania in which the mood becomes very high and expansive .

Although there are different types of bipolar disorder, the “purest” concept of it refers to what happens to a person who for several days in a row is deeply unmotivated, very sad, and even unable to feel pleasure, and then suddenly goes on to spend several days in a row feeling a kind of very intense euphoria and belief that any goal can be achieved (almost literally, and with all the dangers this implies).

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health disorder in which there is a high risk of suicide attempts or exposure to very dangerous situations, and in addition, many times drastic changes in mood can appear together with distortions in the perception of things, such as delusions and even hallucinations.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a clinical concept linked to serious alterations of the most basic mental processes, and is related to psychotic symptoms characterized by a serious alteration of the perception and performance of abnormal behaviors and which often involve exposure to danger.

The ways in which schizophrenia is expressed are so varied that even it has been debated whether it really is a single clinical entity or several with little relation to each other in terms of its causes.

For example, in some cases delusions and hallucinations appear along with an inability to communicate in an organized way, other times the psychotic symptoms of perception are combined with catatonic stupor and loss of consciousness, and in many occasions all this is combined with a strange way of expressing emotions (sometimes it seems that one does not have emotions, sometimes the emotions do not correspond to what is happening).

What is dissociative personality?

Dissociative personality refers to what is known as dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder .

This is a very controversial diagnostic category because there are very few documented cases of it and therefore it has not been possible to study it very much, and also its symptoms have not been described in a very consistent way.

In general terms, dissociative identity disorder is associated with symptoms such as inability to remember certain experiences at certain times but not at others , the feeling of decomposition of one’s personality and the flow of time.

In addition, dissociative identity disorder often occurs in people who have had traumatic experiences, which has fueled the idea that it is part of a way of dealing with memories that cannot be accepted or experienced without great stress. But this is only a hypothesis.

Differences between schizophrenia, bipolarity and dissociative personality

From what we have seen so far, we can already begin to understand what the differences are between dissociative personality, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

1. Bipolar disorder is based on emotions

Although bipolar disorder can go hand in hand with hallucinations and delusions, what characterizes it is the alternation between very extreme moods , and that is why it falls into the category of mood disorders.

On the other hand, most of the time people with bipolar disorder don’t have problems communicating consistently (although sometimes they may choose not to talk due to the lack of motivation and energy typical of the depressive stage).

2. In dissociative identity the key is memory

In the definitions of dissociative identity disorder, alterations in the experience of memories are the central element.

This means that in most cases an inability to remember events is described, and sometimes even a reference is made to a “compartmentalised” memory , as if in the same body there were several people capable of accessing memories that no one else could access.

However, in reality this absolute division between remembered contents does not exist as such, and is only apparent.

3. Schizophrenia is not limited to emotions or memory

Another difference between schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder is that the former has a much wider range of symptom types that go beyond emotional and memory blocks.

4. In each case the “division” in the psychological processes is different

In these concepts, the idea that there is a division between psychological processes appears.

In bipolar disorder, this division occurs with the qualitative change from one emotional state to another .

In dissociative identity, changes occur when some memories become blocked and others become accessible.

And in schizophrenia, it seems that it is the psychological processes themselves that are separated from each other, and not their contents : the emotional part sometimes does not correspond to the processes of perception of the environment, the latter do not correspond to the functioning of the senses, etc.

On the other hand, it’s not typical for schizophrenia to go through stages where some symptoms appear together for several days in a row and then move on to a phase where a completely different set of symptoms emerge, as is the case with bipolar disorder.

Bibliographic references:

  • Ali, A. (2016). Schizophrenia, Symptoms, Types, Causes, and Treatment. OnHealth
  • Lilienfeld, S. O., and Lynn, S. J. (2014). Dissociative identity disorder: a contemporary scientific perspective. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 2nd Ed. New York: Guilford Press).