Diagnostic Criterion May Hide Borderline Personality Disorder

Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW

August 15, 2022

The absence of self-harm does not preclude a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), in 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, Rhode Island, told Medscape Medical News.

"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 Zimmerman, who is also the director of the Outpatient Division at the Partial Hospital Program, Rhode Island Hospital.

The findings were published online July 29 in Psychological Medicine.

A ‘Polythetic Diagnosis’

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," 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 previous 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," 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.

MIDAS Project

The study population was derived from 3800 psychiatric outpatients who had been evaluated in the MIDAS project with semi-structured diagnostic interviews.

Of these, 390 patients were diagnosed with BPD. Since the suicidality/self-harm item was not rated in one patient, the analyzed sample consisted of 389 individuals with BPD (28.3% male; mean age, 32.6 years; 86.3% White). A little more than half the participants (54%) met the BPD suicidality/ self-harm criterion.

Only one-fifth (20.5%) of patients with BPD presented with a chief complaint that was related to a feature of BPD and had received BPD as their principal diagnosis.

Patients who met the suicidality/self-injury criterion were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with BPD as the principal diagnosis compared with those who did not have that criterion (24.8% vs 14.5%, respectively; P < .01).

On the other hand, there was no difference in the mean number of BPD criteria that were met, other than suicidality/self-harm, between those who did and did not present with suicidality/self-harm (5.5 ± 1.2 vs 5.7 ± 0.8, t = 1.44). The investigators note that this finding was "not significant."

There also was no difference between patients who did and did not meet the criterion in number of psychiatric diagnoses at time of evaluation (3.4 ± 1.9 vs 3.5 ± 1.8, t = 0.56).

Hidden BPD

Similarly, there was no difference in any specific Axis I or personality disorder — except for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and histrionic personality disorder. Both were more frequent in the patients who did not meet the suicidality/self-injury criterion. However, after controlling for age, the group difference in GAD was no longer deemed significant (F = 3.45, P = .064).

By contrast, histrionic personality disorder remained significant with age as the covariate (F = 6.03, P = .015).

"The patients who met the suicidality/self-injury criterion were significantly more likely to have been hospitalized and reported more suicidal ideation at the time of the evaluation," the researchers write. Both variables remained significant even after including age as a covariate.

There were no between-group differences on severity of depression, anxiety, or anger at initial evaluation; nor were there differences in social functioning, adolescent social functioning, likelihood of persistent unemployment or receiving disability payments, childhood trauma, or neglect.

"I suspect that there are a number of individuals whose BPD is not recognized because they don't have the more overt feature of self-injury or suicidal behavior," said Zimmerman, noting that these patients might be considered as having "hidden" BPD.  

"Repeated self-injurious and suicidal behavior is not synonymous with BPD, and clinicians should be aware that the absence of these behaviors does not rule out a diagnosis of BPD," he added.

Stigmatizing Diagnosis?

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Monica Carsky, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry and senior fellow, Personality Disorders Institute, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City, said the study "will be particularly useful in the education of clinicians about the characteristics of individuals with BPD."

Carsky, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, was not involved with the study. She noted that other factors "can contribute to misdiagnosis of the borderline patients who do not have suicidality/self-harm."

Clinicians and patients "may see BPD as a stigmatizing diagnosis, so that clinicians become reluctant to make, share, and explain this personality disorder diagnosis," she said.

Carsky suggested that increasing use of the Alternate Model for Personality Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), which first rates the severity level of personality by assessing identity and relationship problems and then notes traits of specific personality disorders, "will help clinicians who dread telling patients they are 'borderline.'"   

No source of study funding has been reported. The investigators and Carsky reported no relevant financial relationships.

Psychol Med. Published online July 29, 2022. Abstract.

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW, is a freelance writer with a counseling practice in Teaneck, NJ. She is a regular contributor to numerous medical publications, including Medscape and WebMD, and is the author of several consumer-oriented health books as well as Behind the Burqa: Our Lives in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom (the memoir of two brave Afghan sisters who told her their story).

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