From the Journals

Effective alternatives to psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder



‘Turns things upside down’

That patients across all groups had marked and sustained improvements “in ways you wouldn’t expect for BPD” supports the conclusion that the interventions had a true effect, Dr. Chanen said.

The results suggest early diagnosis and “a not very complicated treatment [will] drastically improve the lives of these young people,” he added.

They also imply there are effective alternatives to psychotherapy, which many individuals in the field insist is the only way to treat BPD. “This study turns things upside down and says actually it’s not. It’s the basics of treatment that are important,” Dr. Chanen said.

When a patient presents at the emergency department following a severe overdose, “it’s a reflex” for clinicians to refer that person to a psychotherapy program. “The problem is, these programs are not plentiful enough to be able to service the needs of this group,” Dr. Chanen noted.

On the other hand, the skills for clinical case management and psychiatric care “are available throughout the mental health systems,” he added.

The researchers are planning another analysis to determine whether age and sex predict better outcomes in these patients with BPD.

Unique contribution

Commenting for this news organization, John M. Oldham, MD, distinguished emeritus professor, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, said a “unique and important contribution” of the study is the focus on early intervention.

“The general standard approach in psychiatry and the diagnostic world has been to not even consider anything until after somebody is 18 years of age, which is a mistake because these kids can become quite impaired earlier than that,” he said.

Dr. Oldham, who was not involved with the research, chaired the American Psychiatric Association workgroup that developed the 2001 evidence-based practice guideline for treating BPD, which recommended psychotherapy as the primary treatment. The guideline was last updated in 2005 – and another update is currently being developed, he noted.

There is an emerging trend toward “good psychiatric management” that focuses on level of functioning rather than on a specific strategy requiring a certificate of training that “not many people out there have,” said Dr. Oldham.

“You’re not going to make much headway with these kids if you’re going to be searching around for a DBT-certified therapist. What you need is to bring them in, get them to trust you, and in a sense be a kind of overall behavioral medicine navigator for them,” he added.

Dr. Oldham noted that, although the primary study outcome improved between 19% and 24%, “that means three-quarters of the people didn’t improve.”

He also pointed out this was only a 1-year trial. “Sometimes treatment for people with a personality disorder such as borderline takes a lot longer than that,” Dr. Oldham concluded.

The trial was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Dr. Chanen reports receiving grants from the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council during the conduct of the study and other support from the Helping Young People Early (HYPE) translational program outside the submitted work. He and another investigator cofounded and lead the HYPE clinical program, a government-funded program with continuous support, and the HYPE translational program, a not-for-profit training program. Dr. Oldham reported no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on


Next Article: