From the Journals

Diagnostic criterion may hide borderline personality disorder


The absence of self-harm does not preclude a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), according to new findings that may have potential implications for changes to diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

Investigators compared characteristics of almost 400 psychiatric outpatients diagnosed with BPD. About half of the participants met the suicidality/self-injury diagnostic criterion for the disorder, while the other half did not.

Results showed no differences between the two groups in degree of impairment in occupational or social functioning, comorbid psychiatric disorders, history of childhood trauma, or severity of depression, anxiety, or anger.

“Just because a person doesn’t engage in self-harm or suicidal behavior doesn’t mean that the person is free of borderline personality disorder,” lead author Mark Zimmerman, MD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior, Brown University, Providence, R.I., told this news organization.

professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, Providence, R.I. Brown University

Dr. Mark Zimmerman

“Clinicians need to screen for borderline personality disorder in patients with other suggestive symptoms, even if those patients don’t self-harm, just as they would for similar patients who do self-harm,” said Dr. Zimmerman, who is also the director of the Outpatient Division at the Partial Hospital Program, Rhode Island Hospital.

The findings were published online in Psychological Medicine.

A ‘polythetic diagnosis’

Dr. Zimmerman noted the impetus for conducting the study originated with a patient he saw who had all of the features of BPD except for self-harm and suicidality. However, because she didn’t have those two features, she was told by her therapist she could not have BPD.

“This sparked the idea that perhaps there are other individuals whose BPD may not be recognized because they don’t engage in self-harm or suicidal behavior,” Dr. Zimmerman said.

“Most individuals with BPD don’t present for treatment saying, ‘I’m here because I don’t have a sense of myself’ or ‘I feel empty inside’ – but they do say, ‘I’m here because I’m cutting myself’ or ‘I’m suicidal,’ ” he added.

The investigators wondered if there were other “hidden” cases of BPD that were being missed by therapists.

They had previously analyzed each diagnostic criterion for BPD to ascertain its sensitivity. “We had been interested in wanting to see whether there was a criterion so frequent in BPD that every patient with BPD has it,” Dr. Zimmerman said.

BPD is a “polythetic diagnosis,” he added. It is “based on a list of features, with a certain minimum number of those features necessary to make the diagnosis rather than one specific criterion.”

His group’s previous research showed affective instability criterion to be present in more than 90% of individuals with BPD. “It had a very high negative predictive value, meaning that if you didn’t have affective instability, you didn’t have the disorder,” he said.

“Given the clinical and public health significance of suicidal and self-harm behavior in patients with BPD, an important question is whether the absence of this criterion, which might attenuate the likelihood of recognizing and diagnosing the disorder, identifies a subgroup of patients with BPD who are ‘less borderline’ than patients with BPD who do not manifest this criterion,” the investigators write.

The researchers wanted to see if a similar finding applied to self-injury and suicidal behavior and turned to the Rhode Island Methods to Improve Diagnostic Assessment and Services (MIDAS) project to compare the demographic and clinical characteristics of patients with BPD who do and do not engage in repeated suicidal and self-harm behavior.


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