We Need to Talk About Herschel Walker’s Controversial Mental Health Diagnosis
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.In his 2008 book, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Herschel Walker described 12 alters, or separate identities that used to take over his psyche. There was the “Consoler,” who soothed Walker as he was mocked for his weight and stutter during early adolescence; the “Hero,” who “put on the facade of not being affected” by schoolyard bullying; the “Warrior,” who loved physical contact (“the harder, the more brutal, the better”); and the “Coach,” who would “send in” whichever alter was most appropriate for the situation at hand.
The former Heisman Trophy winner and 12-season NFL veteran has long blamed these alternate personalities for his violent thoughts and dangerous behavior—such as playing Russian roulette or wanting to shoot a delivery man who was late. He also blamed them for menacing actions he says he cannot remember, such as the allegation that he held a gun to his ex-wife’s temple.
Walker has identified himself as having dissociative identity disorder, a mental illness defined as the presence of “separate identities” (often called alters) “that function independently of each other and are autonomous of each other,” according to research housed at the National Institutes of Health. Once known as Multiple Personality Disorder, DID is a complex diagnosis. Among experts who treat the condition, it is believed to be caused by the “inability of many traumatized children to develop a unified sense of self that is maintained across various behavioral states.” Walker says his DID was brought on by childhood bullying.
These days, when Walker mentions DID, he does so largely in the past tense. “As everyone knows, I had a real battle with mental health,” Walker said in an early October television ad. But the Georgia GOP’s candidate for US Senate added that “by the grace of God, I’ve overcome it.” In a December 2021 interview with Axios, Walker said he was “better now than 99 percent of the people in America,” adding, “just like I broke my leg; I put the cast on. It healed.”
Herschel Walker meets with supporters in a small town in Northwest Georgia on Sept. 26, 2022.
Robin Rayne/ZUMABut experts note DID is more complicated than what Walker has made it out to be, and some question if the diagnosis is an accurate one to explain his past behaviors. Unlike with cancer or a broken bone, there are no standard blood or imaging tests to determine if someone has a personality disorder or other mental illness, so diagnosing a problem can be extremely slippery, often based on symptoms, reported feelings, behaviors, and the specialties of the clinician.
Mental illness remains a source of stigma in our society as a whole, but especially for those who are running for public office. In order to contextualize troubling past behavior, public figures are often inclined to provide both a specific diagnosis and reassurance that whatever problems that might once have existed are now under control, or even cured. Politicians need only remember what happened in 1972, when it was revealed that Thomas Eagleton, who had been chosen by Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern to be his running mate, had previously been hospitalized for depression and had received electroshock treatment. Eagleton was forced to withdraw from the ticket, and McGovern’s campaign ultimately went down in flames. Walker, instead, got out ahead of the criticisms. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose mother was bipolar, previously told Axios that Walker’s public comments about his diagnosis and past would “defeat any effort to smear him.”
It’s impossible to determine how any given individual factor contributed to Walker’s past behavior. But since a diagnosis of DID is how he has explained his actions, it’s worth taking a look at the often-controversial disorder.
First, there’s no solid evidence that people diagnosed with DID are, on average, more violent than society at large. Second, there are questions surrounding Walker’s treatment for it; the person who originally diagnosed Walker, for example, supports unique treatment methods, such as exorcism in some cases. Finally, and perhaps most confounding, some professionals aren’t certain that DID should exist as a psychiatric diagnosis at all.
Dr. David Spiegel, the associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, is not a DID skeptic. He has treated more than a dozen DID patients, and he stressed that he cannot speak to the specifics of Walker’s case. But he said that DID generally doesn’t just disappear without long-term treatment. “There are no quick fixes,” he said. “It doesn’t just evaporate.”
Despite the fact that Walker’s Senate race is one of the closest and most consequential in the nation, his DID diagnosis seldom gets more than a brief mention in media reports. Experts have largely avoided commenting publicly on Walker’s mental health, or on whether it would impact his ability to carry out the high-stress, high-profile job of serving as a United States senator. In interviews with Mother Jones, several psychiatric professionals were hesitant to comment on Walker’s condition. Some were even reluctant to discuss DID more generally.
One reason for their discretion is the so-called Goldwater Rule, a code of ethics adopted after hundreds of psychiatric experts weighed in on the mental fitness of 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater via a survey organized by Fact Magazine. At the time, Goldwater was seen by many as having extreme views on nuclear weapons and domestic policy, and some of these experts suspected that his views implied a mental or emotional disorder. The leadership of the American Psychiatric Association was outraged by the survey, arguing the responses, many of which alleged Goldwater suffered from psychosis or schizophrenia, had “no scientific or medical validity whatsoever.” Then-APA president Dr. Daniel Blain denounced the survey findings as “a hodge-podge of the personal political opinions of selected psychiatrists speaking as individuals.”
Subsequently, the APA instituted a rule in 1973 barring psychiatrists from speculating on the mental health of public figures without first examining them and getting their permission. The organization argued that doing so could pose risks to fair elections and, as the Goldwater incident did, damage the overall credibility of the field of psychiatry.
But that view isn’t universal. Some experts felt that barring psychiatrists from sharing their expert opinions about candidates actually poses a greater danger.
“If basic mental fitness tests are impossible to implement, then at least we should be able to educate the electorate on the basic principles of mental health,” Dr. Bandy Lee told Mother Jones. Lee is a psychiatrist specializing in violence who was fired from the Yale School of Medicine after breaking the Goldwater rule by organizing a conference discussing the mental fitness of President Donald Trump and warning the public in 2017 that he was mentally unstable. “But mental health experts have been muzzled,” she adds, “and excluded from public discourse.”
DID is thought to affect somewhere around 1 percent of the population, but millions more know about the condition thanks to hyperbolic depictions of it in books and on the big screen. One of the first was Sybil, a 1973 book and 1976 movie starring Sally Field, which was based on the story of a real woman, Shirley Mason, who purportedly had 16 personalities.
It’s not clear Mason actually had DID rather than general psychosis or some other mental illness. In the 40-plus years since Sybil entered the collective zeitgeist, experts have questioned the motivations of Mason’s psychiatrist, Dr. Connie Wilbur, who offered to treat Mason for free in exchange for chronicling her DID in the book Sybil, which Wilbur commissioned Flora Rheta Schreiber to write.
When Mason struggled to “integrate” her personalities into one being—which stood in the way of the planned book’s happy ending—the psychiatrist withheld a powerful and addictive sedative called sodium pentothal that she had been regularly administering to Mason, according to Sybil Exposed, a revelatory 2011 book by Debbie Nathan that documented Wilbur’s strange methods. Without this medication, Mason became agitated. She wrote her psychiatrist a letter stating she made up the alters. “I do not have any multiple personalities,” she wrote, “I have been essentially lying.” Admitting the condition was a fraud could have meant the end of her relationship with Wilbur and giving up sodium pentothal for good; Mason then recanted the first letter, claiming another alter wrote it in a second letter, after which her medication resumed.
About a decade after Mason began treatment, her psychiatrist announced she was moving out of state. Wilbur invited Mason to move with her, on the condition that she integrated her multiple personalities into one so the book could be written. Nathan’s book says Mason never experienced another episode of a different personality again.
Whether or not Mason’s multiple personality disorder diagnosis was fictional, it likely spurred the proliferation of many cases that were. After the Sybil film was released, reports of dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder spiked between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, followed by a three-fourths decline from their peak levels by 2003.
More recently, you might recall the 2016 thriller Split, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, in which three kidnapped girls had to escape a man with 23 alters before the even more horrifying 24th alter emerged. One way Split misrepresents DID is the fact that there are few, if any, credible scientific studies proving people with the disorder have a higher-than-average likelihood of violence than exists in the general population. While there is limited research on the subject generally, one 2017 study published in the BMC Medical Journal shows the opposite: Among 173 individuals with dissociative disorders like DID who were studied by a clinical psychologist, only 3 percent reported having been charged with any criminal offense in the past six months, and more than half of them had received only a fine for their actions. Just half a percent of those surveyed had been incarcerated in the past 6 months, according to the study. Further, “none of the symptoms reliably predicted recent criminal behavior,” the author wrote.
Then there’s the question of whether DID should be diagnosed at all.
“When there’s an external trigger that condenses this and makes it a popular contagion, you get a sudden flurry of cases,” says Dr. Allen Frances, chairman emeritus of the Duke University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He doubts the veracity of the condition and tried to get it removed from one version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called diagnostic bible for psychiatrists and mental health professionals that is now in its fifth edition.
He’s not the only DID cynic. According to Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, DID is controversial because experts disagree on whether it is a culturally shaped metaphor for distress, or if childhood trauma can shatter someone—literally dis-integrate someone’s identity into multiple identities in order to enable the original personality to repress the abuse. “The claim that people can be horribly traumatized yet be incapable of recalling such memories is unconvincing,” says McNally. “Indeed, post-traumatic stress disorder is marked by intrusive memories of trauma that victims are unable to forget.”
But Frances goes a step further in disavowing it: “My personal point of view is that it’s almost, if not always, something provoked by a therapist who’s enthusiastic about it—or by a book or movie.”
Among those potentially influenced by popular culture was Kenneth Bianchi, one-half of the serial killer pair collectively known as California’s Hillside Strangler, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the murders of multiple women in the late 1970s. Bianchi claimed a multiple personality disorder diagnosis during the trial, but some experts brought in to evaluate him thought he was faking the condition. They argued that Bianchi was aware of DID before pretending to have it. Police had found a large assortment of psychology books in Bianchi’s apartment, and Bianchi admitted to seeing Three Faces of Eve, a 1957 film depicting DID. His efforts failed. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison in 1979.
Herschel Walker’s 2008 book described multiple incidents of violent thoughts and behaviors. Not only did he play Russian roulette with a loaded gun, but there was also the time when, with “murder in his heart and mind,” he thought about shooting a car delivery man who was late delivering his vehicle. “It would be no different from sighting at the targets I’d fired at for years—except for the visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood—like a Fourth of July firework—exploding behind him,” Walker wrote in his book.
Walker campaigns to a large crowd outside a gun and pawn shop in rural north Georgia on Oct. 24, 2022.
Robin Rayne/ZUMAWhile not detailed in the book, in 2008, his ex-wife Cindy Grossman also accused Walker of holding a gun to her head and threatening to “blow [her] brains out” when they were married.
At the time of Walker’s book publication and Grossman’s accusation, Dr. Carole Lieberman, a California psychiatrist, suggested to ABC News that a person in Walker’s situation might want to feign a diagnosis to excuse violent indiscretions, not unlike Bianchi. “Psychiatrists must make the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder very carefully because oftentimes patients want to find an excuse for their behavior by attributing it to a ‘disorder’ rather than their own impulsive mistakes,” she said.
Still, Walker’s supposed inability to recall his alleged threats against Grossman would track with some experts’ views of what DID can look like. “There will be people who will lose track of time,” Spiegel says, “who will find clothing in their closet that they don’t remember buying, who will find themselves in a hotel room with somebody and not know how they got there.”
Another expert, Igor Pietkiewicz, a psychotherapist and associate professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland, suggested to me that Walker’s symptoms—namely his self-described “out-of- control” behavior—are more indicative of borderline personality disorder, another complicated-to-diagnose syndrome that is characterized by intensely disruptive thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Pietkiewicz added, however, that diagnosing patients “is a complex process and require[s] specialized tools and clinical skills.”
Vikings coach Jerry Burns, Walker, and general manager Mile Lynn during a press conference on Oct. 13, 1989.
TNS via ZUMAIf Walker has DID or something else, it’s unclear whether he received adequate mental health treatment for it. For DID, that usually includes ongoing psychotherapy, hypnosis, and medication to treat common comorbidities like depression, says Spiegel.
Walker has written that he spent some length of time at a Torrance, California, hospital for outpatient treatment. But for him, the real credit for his recovery goes to Jerry Mungadze, who has a Ph.D. in counselor education from the University of North Texas. The two met in the early 1980s when both were participating in collegiate-level track and field, but reconnected around 2001 at a dinner party. Through their relationship together over the last two decades, Walker says, he has been able to “overcome” DID.
“Dr. Jerry has played an important role in my healing process,” Walker wrote in his book. “I consider him one of my best friends, and probably one of the most essential.”
But Mungadze’s approach is unlike that of many mental health professionals. In 2000, he provided practitioners at a presentation with a checklist of questions they should ask patients. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one question read: “Have they willingly, under any circumstances, vowed to follow Satan?” He also supports the use of exorcism as a therapy option, though he acknowledges it shouldn’t be the “initial step” in DID treatment. “Exorcism has a role in the treatment of some DID clients, whose clinical picture shows the need for it,” Mungadze wrote in the book, Critical Issues in the Dissociative Disorders Field: Six Perspectives from Religiously Sensitive Practitioners.
Mungadze also promotes a diagnostic technique in which patients use crayons or colored pencils to shade in a map of the brain. Mungadze has said that “people that come from the occult—people coming from witchcraft—usually [choose] blacks and browns and grays.”
Spiegel said “there’s no evidence” that extracting special meaning from coloring in an image of a brain has “any scientific basis.”
Neither Mungadze nor the Walker campaign responded to requests for comment from Mother Jones for this article.
Treatment modalities aside, several experts emphasized that an underlying mental health diagnosis should not disqualify someone from public office.
Spiegel said he knows of many patients with DID “who are in very high-level jobs and doing extremely well. And typically they have had some treatment and sort of recognition when they’re taking on more than they can handle.” However, he added that people with DID “have often been damaged emotionally, sometimes physically. The fault lines are there, and subsequent stressors can lead to exacerbation of the disorder…It’s not something that you can just do a quick fix on and they’re fine.”
Meanwhile, some Walker fans see his DID diagnosis as a strength, one that shows courage and serves to reduce the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues. “You’re talking about a world-class track athlete, an Olympian, a NFL player, and a collegiate All-American,” Frank Mattiace, an addiction counselor and former teammate of Walker’s, told me. “Even for him to come out with that [diagnosis]…that’s a leader.”
Frances, the Duke psychiatrist, disagrees. “If Herschel Walker does indeed suffer from multiple personality disorder, that should by itself disqualify him from any high office,” he says. “If Herschel Walker just used multiple personality disorder as an excuse for his horrendous behavior, that should disqualify him for any high office.”