It is estimated that up to 7 million people in America suffer from borderline personality disorder, with three times as many women as men being diagnosed. Patients with borderline personality disorder suffer from serious instability in mood, personal relationships, and behavior.

It causes great distress to the patient and their families, as well as has a serious impact on their daily functioning and work life. Borderline patients are at significant rate for self-injury and suicide attempt. Borderline patients also make up 20% of all inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations.

Treatment is usually psychotherapy and behavioral modification. Medication can be used with the choice being directed towards the predominant behavior being displayed, like anti-depressants for depressive behavior, or antipsychotic medications for altered thinking.

According to the DSM, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a person must show an enduring pattern of behavior that includes at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating
  • Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior, such as cutting
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
  • Having stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality.

Seemingly mundane events may trigger symptoms. For example, people with borderline personality disorder may feel angry and distressed over minor separations—such as vacations, business trips, or sudden changes of plans—from people to whom they feel close. Studies show that people with this disorder may see anger in an emotionally neutral face and have a stronger reaction to words with negative meanings than people who do not have the disorder.

Unfortunately, borderline personality disorder is often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

A mental health professional experienced in diagnosing and treating mental disorders—such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker, or psychiatric nurse—can detect borderline personality disorder based on a thorough interview and a discussion about symptoms. A careful and thorough medical exam can help rule out other possible causes of symptoms. No single test can diagnose borderline personality disorder.

The mental health professional may ask about symptoms and personal and family medical histories, including any history of mental illnesses. This information can help the mental health professional decide on the best treatment. In some cases, co-occurring mental illnesses may have symptoms that overlap with borderline personality disorder, making it difficult to distinguish borderline personality disorder from other mental illnesses. For example, a person may describe feelings of depression but may not bring other symptoms to the mental health professional's attention.

Borderline personality disorder can be treated with psychotherapy, or "talk" therapy, such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and group therapy. In some cases, a mental health professional may also recommend medications to treat specific symptoms. When a person is under more than one professional's care, it is essential for the professionals to coordinate with one another on the treatment plan.


No medications have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat borderline personality disorder. Only a few studies show that medications are necessary or effective for people with this illness. However, many people with borderline personality disorder are treated with medications in addition to psychotherapy.

While medications do not cure BPD, some medications may be helpful in managing specific symptoms. For some people, medications can help reduce symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or aggression. Often, people are treated with several medications at the same time, but there is little evidence that this practice is necessary or effective.

Medications can cause different side effects in different people. People who have borderline personality disorder should talk with their prescribing doctor about what to expect from a particular medication.


Psychotherapy is usually the first treatment for people with borderline personality disorder. Current research suggests psychotherapy can relieve some symptoms, but further studies are needed to better understand how well psychotherapy works.

It is important that people in therapy get along with and trust their therapist. The very nature of borderline personality disorder can make it difficult for people with this disorder to maintain this type of bond with their therapist.

Types of psychotherapy used to treat borderline personality disorder include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help people with borderline personality disorder identify and change core beliefs and/or behaviors that underlie inaccurate perceptions of themselves and others and problems interacting with others. CBT may help reduce a range of mood and anxiety symptoms and reduce the number of suicidal or self-harming behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This type of therapy focuses on the concept of mindfulness, or being aware of and attentive to the current situation. DBT teaches skills to control intense emotions, reduces self-destructive behaviors, and improves relationships. This therapy differs from CBT in that it seeks a balance between changing and accepting beliefs and behaviors.
  • Schema-focused therapy. This type of therapy combines elements of CBT with other forms of psychotherapy that focus on reframing schemas, or the ways people view themselves. This approach is based on the idea that borderline personality disorder stems from a dysfunctional self-image—possibly brought on by negative childhood experiences—that affects how people react to their environment, interact with others, and cope with problems or stress.

Therapy can be provided one-on-one between the therapist and the patient or in a group setting. Therapist-led group sessions may help teach people with borderline personality disorder how to interact with others and how to express themselves effectively.

Borderline personality disorder usually begins during adolescence or early adulthood. Some studies suggest that early symptoms of the illness may occur during childhood.

Some people with borderline personality disorder experience severe symptoms and require intensive, often inpatient, care. Others may use some outpatient treatments but never need hospitalization or emergency care. Some people who develop this disorder may improve without any treatment.

If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. Other people who can help are:

  • Mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or mental health counselors
  • Health maintenance organizations
  • Community mental health centers
  • Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
  • Mental health programs at universities or medical schools
  • State hospital outpatient clinics
  • Family services, social agencies, or clergy
  • Peer support groups
  • Private clinics and facilities
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Local medical and psychiatric societies.

You can also check the phone book under "mental health," "health," "social services," "hotlines," or "physicians" for phone numbers and addresses. An emergency room doctor can provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.

Borderline personality disorder often occurs with other illnesses. These co-occurring disorders can make it harder to diagnose and treat borderline personality disorder, especially if symptoms of other illnesses overlap with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Women with borderline personality disorder are more likely to have co-occurring disorders such as major depression, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders. In men, borderline personality disorder is more likely to co-occur with disorders such as substance abuse or antisocial personality disorder.

According to the NIMH-funded National Comorbidity Survey Replication—the largest national study to date of mental disorders in U.S. adults—about 85 percent of people with borderline personality disorder also meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.

Taking that first step to help yourself may be hard. It is important to realize that, although it may take some time, you can get better with treatment.

To help yourself:

  • Talk to your doctor about treatment options and stick with treatment
  • Try to maintain a stable schedule of meals and sleep times
  • Engage in mild activity or exercise to help reduce stress
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can, as you can
  • Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or family member
  • Tell others about events or situations that may trigger symptoms
  • Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately
  • Identify and seek out comforting situations, places, and people
  • Continue to educate yourself about this disorder.

How can I help a friend or relative who has borderline personality disorder?

If you know someone who has borderline personality disorder, it affects you too. The first and most important thing you can do is help your friend or relative get the right diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with your friend or relative to see the doctor. Encourage him or her to stay in treatment or to seek different treatment if symptoms do not appear to improve with the current treatment.

To help a friend or relative you can:

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement—change can be difficult and frightening to people with borderline personality disorder, but it is possible for them to get better over time
  • Learn about mental disorders, including borderline personality disorder, so you can understand what your friend or relative is experiencing
  • With permission from your friend or relative, talk with his or her therapist to learn about therapies that may involve family members, such as DBT-FST.
  • Never ignore comments about someone's intent or plan to harm himself or herself or someone else. Report such comments to the person's therapist or doctor. In urgent or potentially life-threatening situations, you may need to call the police
Reviewed By: 
Review Date: 
March 13, 2012