Research Recommendations for Improving Treatment for People with Personality Disorders

Two studies in nursing journals that I read recently examine good practice for personality disorder treatment. Bowen (2013) specifically studied ideas for intervention with borderline personality disorder patients, whereas Fanaian, Lewis & Grenyer (2013) studied more general ideas for implementing personality disorder services. Bowen also emphasized direct intervention strategies, whereas Fanaian et al.’s study more focused on organizational structure. Bowen (2013) interviewed nine mental health professionals, four of whom were nurses, working at a specialist unit for patients with BPD. Key apsects of good practice mentioned by interviewees were:

  • Shared decison making: for example, service users and staff should meet in community meetings to discuss and think through decisions that a service user might otherwise make impulsively. This thinking thorugh also counters black-and-white thinking.
  • Rules should be actively recreated, rather than being strictly enforced or being abandoned. This is an offshoot from the shared decision making in the above bullet.
  • Patients should have social roles, such as jobs on the unit nd group therapy with a pratical focus. This is a way of bringing into the open and then challenging interpersonal difficulties that are so typical of BPD.
  • Social disturubances must not just be prevented, but also be used as an opportunity for learning.
  • Peer support, including feedback on behaviors, but also including compassion. One interviewee also commented that peer support can enhance the patients’ looking inward for the resources to help themselves, rather than viewing the staff as sole bearers of wisdom.
  • Open communication. For example, this unit had a structure whereby three service users were elected to discuss issues happening on the unit with the staff as a means of liaison.
  • Involvement with the person as a whole, seeing them as more than their BPD symptoms.
Bowen (2013) does highlight that not all of these aspects of good practice can be generalized. After all, this unit was a specialist unit for treating BPD and had its structure built so that these aspects of good practice could be met. For example, there were daily meetings, group therapy, and patients had jobs on the ward.

It was found that mental health workers on this unit had a pretty optimistic outlook on recovery from BPD. This is in contrast to research which shows that mental nurses have negative attitudes about BPD patients. Fanaian et al. (2013) emphasize this negative attitude towards people with personaltiy disorders as a major barrier to appropriate care.

Fanaian et al. (2013) had about 60 experienced clinicians in personality disorder treatment, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, a nurse and a counselor sit in groups of four and brainstorm on topics relevant to personality disorder treamment. They overwhelmingly found that current practice in mainstream mental health settings is both poor and inaccurate. Ways to improve practice included:

  • More education and training on the subject. Some groups also recommended that workers in non-psychiatric settings who have frequent contact with personality disorered people, such as social services staff, be trained in personality disorders. Carers, such as family and friends, also were said to need education and training.
  • More support through supervision and leadership. For example, there should be more supportive and regular treatment team meetings. Clinicians also mentioned better access to Internet resources on treatmetn and assessment for mainstream mental health staff. There also should be greater support for staff approaching burn-out, as it was felt that staff working with personality disordered people have a high risk of burn-out and work-related stress.
  • A shift from risk management to recovery-focused treatment and case management. Acute hospitalization should be avoided when possible. Rather, patients with personality disordeers need intensive, multidiscipinary case management.
  • Clearer guidelines and protocols. Many groups of clinicians emphasized a consistent approach across teams, particularly when managing crises.
  • An attitude shift to decrease stigma. Some groups emphasized the fact that many health professionals have a negative attitude about personalityy disorder patietns, and this is a barrier to effective treatment.
Fanaian et al.’s (2013) study, like all studies, has its limitations. The clinicians participating in the study were invited to a personality disorders meeting based on expertise and experience. Therefore, it is not known whether these findings generalize well into mainstream mental health provision.


Bowen M (2013), Borderline Personality Disorder: Clinicians’ Accounts of Good Practice. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health nursing, 20(6):491-498. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2012.01943.x

Fanaian M, Lewis KL, & Grenyer BFS (2013), Improving Services for People with Personality Disorders: Views of Experienced Clinicians. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 22(5):465-471. DOI: 10.1111/inm.12009.


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