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Stigma and Borderline Personality Disorder

How Stigma Impacts People With BPD

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Updated June 30, 2009

Stigma and borderline personality disorder (BPD) often go hand in hand. But what is stigma, and how can it impact you?

For years, in the United States and abroad, public information campaigns have tried to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. Unfortunately, these campaigns don’t seem to have been successful. In fact, the general public today is as afraid or more afraid of people with mental illness than they were decades ago. And people with BPD are among the most highly stigmatized groups.

How can we combat the stigma faced by people with BPD and other mental illnesses? The first step is to learn more about stigma, its consequences, and how to fight it.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is a perceived negative attribute that causes someone to devalue or think less of the whole person. People tend to distance themselves from individuals in stigmatized groups, to blame individuals in these groups for the perceived negative attributes, and to discriminate against and diminish the stigmatized individuals.

Many individuals with mental health difficulties are perceived as weak, inhuman, or “less than” because of their psychological symptoms. Of the major mental illnesses, individuals with BPD are perhaps among the most stigmatized. Individuals with BPD are often blamed for their symptoms by both professionals and laypeople.

To give one example of stigma and mental illness, consider public perception of mental illness and violence. Research has shown that the American public is twice a likely to believe that people with mental illness tend to be violent than they were in 1950.

Actually, mental illness alone does not increase the chances that a person will be violent at all. In fact, people with mental illness are actually much more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. Still, the public perception is that people with mental illness are dangerous.

What Are the Consequences of Stigma?

The consequences of stigma are far-reaching. Research has shown that people from stigmatized groups are more likely to distance themselves from others, and they may start to believe what others say about them, thinking of themselves as incompetent, weak, or unreliable. These negative self-beliefs may have worse consequences than the mental illness itself, in some cases.

In addition, people from stigmatized groups may be less likely to seek treatment because of the possible consequences of being labeled with a disorder. Many people will not seek treatment for fear that getting a diagnosis will interfere with their ability to get a job in the future.

Stigma also makes it difficult for people with mental illnesses to find the social support they need to successfully manage their illness. There is evidence that social support is one of the key factors in successful recovery from mental illness, but individuals from stigmatized groups may have trouble finding that social support.

How Can I Fight Stigma?

Perhaps the most important way to fight stigma in your own life is to engage in educating others about BPD. There is evidence that when people learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for BPD, their attitudes tend to change. Share your knowledge about BPD with people around you, and you can be a major force for change in their beliefs.

Another way to fight stigma is to volunteer your time for organizations that seek to change public attitudes about mental illness. For example, the National Alliance for Mental Illness StigmaBusters campaign accesses the talents and resources of thousands of volunteers to identity and confront stigma wherever it occurs.

Sources:

Aviram RB, Brodsky BS, Stanley B. “Borderline Personality Disorder, Stigma, and Treatment Implications.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 14(5):249-256, 2006.  

Dingfelder, S. F. “Stigma: Alive and Well.” APA Monitor on Psychology, 40(6): 56-60, 2009.

Krawitz R. “Borderline Personality Disorder: Attitudinal Change Following Training.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 38(7):554-559, 2004.

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