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These 3 essential steps best support patients with borderline personality disorder, according to Carl Fleisher, MD.
There are 13 million adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the United States and, of that number, 1.5 million are adolescents, Carl Fleisher, MD, told attendees of the 2021 Annual Psychiatric TimesTM World CME Conference. To best support them, there are 3 things you need to do, added Fleisher, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California Los Angeles Health.
To kick off the discussion, Fleisher shared the case example of “Hannah,” a 16 year old girl who presents wondering if she has BPD after Googling her experience. Specifically, she has rapid mood swings, feels numb more often than sad, and cuts herself superficially several times a week. She has 1 friend and spends all of her time with that friend in fear the friend will desert her. She is interested in boys, but she avoids them. Hannah does not voice her needs to parents, teachers, or friend; instead, she goes along with whatever they want or like.
The first thing to do, therefore, is to make the diagnosis, Fleischer said. To do so, there are 9 criteria to consider, and sometimes it feels like they are all over the map. As such, the patient might not see the connections, so it is important to help draw them for patients. One way to do that, he explained, is to use a model of interpersonal hypersensitivity. Since we all want and need to be in relationships, and we are hypersensitive, we may have a fear of abandonment. From there, you can talk about the other symptoms.
Fleischer also likes the McLean Screening Instrument for rapid assessment of patients. It helps patients think things through, he explained. It also provides an opportunity for further discussion, as the clinician may have a different perspective than the patient does on a particular item.
Most patients are relieved when they finally receive a diagnosis, Fleischer said. He shared the following patient perspective: “It explained a lot of things and I felt an enormous sense of relief that there was an explanation for the way I was.”1
The second thing is to refer to helpful resources, including psychoeducation, support, and treatment strategies, Fleisher said. He recommended a number of resources both for patients and their clinicians: the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder, Mentalizing Initiative, the Anne Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and McLean’s Borderline Personality Disorder center.
In terms of treatments, there are 4 evidence-based psychotherapy modalities, Fleisher said. They include dialectical behavioral therapy, transference-focused psychotherapy, mentalizing-based therapy, and good psychiatric management, which is not an orientation but more of framework for clinicians. “It is also possible also that a plain old talk therapy is an adequate treatment for borderline personality disorder, especially if you have nothing else,” he told attendees.
It is also important to consider psychoeducation and family support, Fleischer added. He shared the results of a study looking at the impact of 6 weeks of psychoeducation on patients. The investigators found that symptoms reduced greatly—by about half—and stayed low for 2 months after the intervention protocol.2 Similarly, since caregivers and family members are under a lot of stress and strain, it is important to broaden the treatment lens and provide support to them, too.
Unfortunately, Fleischer noted there are no medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to specifically treat BPD. Likewise, there is no medication that is uniformly helpful. Too often, patients find themselves on multiple medications, he said, and polypharmacy poses a significant danger because of adverse effects, like weight gain associated with antipsychotics.
“We can do a whole hour-long talk on just medication for BPD, but the short of it would be: If you're going to use medication to treat one of the comorbid illnesses that BPD presents with, as opposed to this BPD itself, then you can try that,” Fleisher told attendees. “But if we're going to try to treat the symptoms of BPD itself like lability, paranoia, that sort of thing, then it may be that we want to consider a brief trial of medication to get people through a crisis.” After using the medications in a way that is helpful, it is important to consider taking it away, because we do not expect them to be helpful in the long-term and do not want to cause a problem of polypharmacy, he added.
The third thing to do is to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment, Fleischer said. Start with baseline measurements on the areas you and the patient want to address, be it self-harm, work performance, risky behaviors, and quality of life and relationships.
With these 3 things in mind, Fleisher concluded, clinicians can best support their patients with BPD. As he told attendees, “Borderline personality disorder is worth treating, and people with BPD are very rewarding to work with.”
1. Lester R, Prescott L, McCormack M, Sampson M; North West Boroughs Healthcare, NHS Foundation Trust. Service users' experiences of receiving a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder: A systematic review. Personal Ment Health. 2020;14(3):263-283.
2. Ridolfi ME, Rossi R, Occhialini G, Gunderson JG. A Clinical Trial of a Psychoeducation Group Intervention for Patients With Borderline Personality Disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2019;81(1):19m12753. Published 2019 Dec 31.