The term Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) was first coined by Adolf Stern in 1938, to describe what he percieved to be patients who were suffering from a mild form of Schizophrenia and thus seen to be on the borderline between neurosis and psychosis. In the 1960s and 70s these ideas changed, now rather than Borderline Schizophrenia, it was instead viewed as a mood disorder, having similarities to Bipolar Affective Disorder and Cyclthymia with its variability, volatility and intensity of moods. Finally with the introduction of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1980, it was labelled as a personality disorder and given its current name. It is now one of ten personality disorders that exist, though BPD by far being the most heavily diagnosed.
The criteria for BPD is as follows;
(1) Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note:
(2) A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealisation and devaluation. This is called “splitting.”
(3) Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
(4) Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in (5).
(5) Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
(6) Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
(7) Chronic feelings of emptiness.
(8) Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
(9) Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
BPD is a diagnosis most often given to women. 75 to 90 percent of those acquiring a diagnosis are female and even more troubling a fact is that self-injurious behaviour alone can often be the primary diagnostic feature. Thus in effect, if you’re female and also have a propensity for self-harm, regardless of the reasons for this coping mechanism, you are more likely to be diagnosed with what is described as an “abnormal personality.”
It is suggested that the over-diagnosis of BPD in women could be due to societal and cultural understandings of female behaviour. As women are seen to be the more mild, passive, caring, gentler sex, then showing aggression through the incidence of self-harm for example, even if self-directed, is seen as a deviation from the norm. Being more aggressive generally or more assertive than other women, being successful, overly promiscuous, more focused on self rather than putting the needs of others before one’s own can all be perceived as going against the grain and not conforming to the norms expected of women, in effect rejecting traditional gender stereotypes.
Added to this, a diagnosis of BPD is often handed to females who appear difficult to treat, are more vocal or who are more bothersome or troublesome than other patients. This begs the question as to why the very idea of a women not fitting the given ideology of a society or culture remains so threatening, ideas around female madness still archaic and out of step. Recently they changed the name of this personality disorder to Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder with Borderline features believing the original to be too stigmatising, when in reality the latter firmly places women back into “Crazy Jane Territory,” our hysterical wombs leading us astray.
A personality disorder is one of the most stigmatising diagnoses in psychiatry and it caries further consequences, often making sure these people are treated differently and sometimes unjustly by healthcare professionals who sadly all too often buy into the lunacy of PD. As they are perceived as having something inherently wrong with their personalities, (how do you measure personality?), they are viewed as difficult to treat leading to in-built prejudices by staff and providing a easy route to blaming the patient when problems arise rather than looking at their own responses and professionalism.
Much of psychiatry is based, in my opinion, on a defunct medical model that is unfit for purpose and needs to be dismantled. Personality disorder is different in that is other people (often male) deciding what behaviour is acceptable in a given culture and then punishing people who don’t conform. The fact some antipsychotics are now licenced for use in BPD no doubt will increase its diagnosis.
Sadly, a high percentage of people diagnosed with BPD have had abusive, chaotic childhoods, which often include being victims of sexual/physical/mental abuse. Research has found that the changes in their brains are similar to those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that a diagnosis of such may well serve them better. However, others disagree, claiming that PTSD does not cover all of the symptoms involved with BPD.
If BPD develops during a person’s childhood though various types of trauma, in turn having massive implications on the child’s developing brain, then surely what needs to be addressed is the trauma that person has endured? Would it not be more useful to look at how the presenting person can be helped to come to terms with their experiences, to heal and hopefully move forward in a supportive environment. Why do we need to first give a person a label, a label whose only use is to make the health professionals life easier, a clever bit of admin essentially.
Does BPD have legitimacy as a psychiatric summary of anyone’s behaviour. It seems what happens is women are predominately handed a rag- tag of a diagnosis by psychiatrists and professionals who see themselves as fit to decide what constitutes a ‘normal personality,’ according to a list of criteria that assumes that one who exhibits these symptoms or behaviours is somehow defective. BPD is then nothing more than a societal and cultural construct, a ludicrous label and a sad stigmatisation of people’s personalities especially those that have endured traumas such as abuse. Is not the rage, self-harm and volatile emotions to name a few, nothing more than a normal reaction to what is abnormal behaviour?
Effectively with systematically diagnosing BPD, we are making the individual responsible for their reactions to abuse and trauma, which achieves nothing more than to blame the patient for the way they have reacted to those who have harmed and abused them, further adding to their feelings of guilt, shame and low self-esteem.
Maybe the emphasis needs to be placed on understanding why women and men, though men usually receive an equally stigmatising diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder are displaying these types of behaviours. Instead of thoughtlessly reaching for the DSM, a book based on criteria and symptoms, decidedly removed from the every day human experience, we need to look at the root cause of the problem which ironically enough is society.
© Copyright Henrietta M Ross