Trust is key in treating borderline personality disorder


Medication only goes so far

Psychiatrists tend to look at BPD patients as receptor sites for molecules, assessing symptoms they can prescribe for, Eric M. Plakun, MD, DLFAPA, FACPsych, medical director/CEO of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., said in an interview.

Dr. Eric M. Plakun

Dr. Eric M. Plakun

Yet, BPD is not a molecular problem, principally. It’s an interpersonal disorder. When BPD is a co-occurring disorder, as is often the case, the depressive, anxiety, or other disorder can mask the BPD, he added, citing his 2018 paper on tensions in psychiatry between the biomedical and biopsychosocial models (Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2018 Jun;41[2]:237-48).

In one longitudinal study (J Pers Disord. 2005 Oct;19[5]:487-504), the presence of BPD strongly predicted the persistence of depression. BPD comorbid with depression is often a recipe for treatment-resistant depression, which results in higher costs, more utilization of resources, and higher suicide rates. Too often, psychiatrists diagnose the depression but miss the BPD. They keep trying molecular approaches with prescription drugs – even though it’s really the interpersonal issues of BPD that need to be addressed, said Dr. Plakun, who is a member of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Psychotherapy Committee, and founder and past leader of the American Psychiatric Association’s Psychotherapy Caucus.

Medication can be helpful as a short-term adjunctive therapy. Long term, it’s not a sustainable approach, said Dr. Oldham. “If a patient is in a particularly stressful period, in the middle of a stormy breakup or having a depressive episode or talking about suicide, a time-limited course of an antidepressant may be helpful,” he said. They could also benefit from an anxiety-related drug or medication to help them sleep.

What you don’t want is for the patient to start relying on medications to help them feel better. The problem is, many are suffering so much that they’ll go to their primary care doctor and say, “I’m suffering from anxiety,” and get an antianxiety drug. Or they’re depressed or in pain and end up with a cocktail of medications. “And that’s just going to make matters worse,” Dr. Oldham said.

Psychotherapy as a first-line approach

APA practice guidelines and others worldwide have all come to the same conclusion about BPD. The primary or core treatment for this condition is psychotherapy, said Dr. Oldham, who chaired an APA committee that developed an evidence-based practice guideline for patients with BPD.

Psychotherapy keeps the patient from firing you, he asserted. “Because of the lack of trust, they push away. They’re very scared, and this fear also applies to therapist. The goal is to help the patient learn to trust you. To do that, you need to develop a strong therapeutic alliance.”

In crafting the APA’s practice guideline, Dr. Oldham and his colleagues studied a variety of approaches, including mentalization-based therapy (MBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which was developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD. Since then, other approaches have demonstrated efficacy in randomized clinical trials, including schema-based therapy (SBT), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP).

Dr. Lois W. Choi-Kain

Dr. Lois W. Choi-Kain

Those treatments might complement the broader goal of establishing a strong alliance with the patient, Dr. Oldham said. Manualized approaches can help prepackage a program that allows clinicians and patients to look at their problems in an objective, nonpejorative way, Lois W. Choi-Kain, MD, MEd, director of the Gunderson Personality Disorders Institute at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., said in an interview. DBT, for example, focuses on emotion dysregulation. MBT addresses how the patient sees themselves through others and their interactions with others. “It destigmatizes a problem as a clinical entity rather than an interpersonal problem between the patient and the clinician,” Dr. Choi-Kain said.

The choice of approach depends on several factors: the patient’s needs and preferences, and the therapist’s skills and experience, said Dr. Oldham. Some patients don’t do well with DBT because it involves a lot of homework and didactic work. Others do better with TFP because they want to understand what drives their behavior.

Dr. Cummings recalled how one of his patients used TFP to look inward and heal.

He first met the patient when she was in her early 30s. “She had made some progress, but I remember she was still struggling mightily with relationship issues and with identifying her role in relationships,” he said. The patient was becoming increasingly aware that she was going to end up alone and didn’t want that as an outcome.

Adapting to a TFP model, “she worked very hard trying to understand herself as she related to other people, understanding her own emotional volatility, and some of her proneness to behavioral problems,” Dr. Cummings said. The patient also had to learn how to negotiate her relationships to the point where she didn’t end up destroying them and alienating people.


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