Suicidality in Borderline Personality Disorder

Why it's so common and how to help

Female depressed patient sitting on the chair in a hospital ward
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Suicidal behaviors and completed suicides are very common in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Research has shown that up to 80 percent of people with BPD will make at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime, and many will make multiple suicide attempts. People with BPD are also more likely to complete suicide than individuals with any other psychiatric disorders. Around 9 percent of people with BPD complete suicide, which is more than 50 times the rate of suicide in the general population.

Why Suicide Is so Common

There are several factors related to BPD that may explain why suicide, self-harm, and suicide attempts are so common, such as:

  • Severe emotional pain: BPD is associated with very intense negative emotional experiences. These experiences are so painful that many people with BPD report that they would like to find a way to escape. They may use a number of different strategies to try to reduce their emotional pain, such as deliberate self-harm or substance use and even suicide.
  • Duration: BPD is a chronic condition and usually lasts for years. Conditions that are chronic may lead to more risk for suicide since they don't tend to get better quickly without treatment. This may leave people with BPD feeling that there is no other way out, despite the fact that there are now effective treatments available for BPD.
  • Comorbidity: BPD tends to co-occur with other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizoaffective disorder. When there are other mental disorders present, the risk of suicide increases.
  • Impulsivity: BPD is associated with impulsivity, or a tendency to act quickly without thinking about consequences. Individuals with BPD may engage in suicidal behaviors in a moment of intense emotional pain without fully considering the consequences.
  • Substance use: BPD often co-occurs with substance use and the use of drugs or alcohol is a risk factor for suicide all by itself. When substance use issues are combined with BPD, this may be a particularly lethal combination because substance use can lead to even greater impulsivity and people who are using substances have access to a means for overdose.
  • Brain abnormalities: Brain imaging has shown that compared to healthy people, individuals with BPD tend to have abnormalities involving the brain's structure, metabolism, and function. These abnormalities appear to contribute to symptoms of BPD such as impulsivity and aggression, both of which are associated with suicidal behavior. One study explored the relationship between impulsivity, aggression, and suicidal behavior in the brain structures of people with BPD who had attempted suicide. The participants were put into two groups depending on how lethal their suicide attempts had been. In the group labeled High Lethality, meaning their suicide attempts had been extremely harmful, there was less gray matter in multiple areas of the brain than in the Low Lethality group. A similar study also showed a significantly reduced amount of gray matter in the brains of individuals with BPD when compared with healthy people. In people with BPD who had attempted suicide, there was less gray matter in 8 out of 9 areas and in people with BPD who had not attempted suicide, there was less gray matter in 5 out of 9 areas. And, similar to the other study, the higher lethality suicide attempters had notably less gray matter than the lower lethality attempters in certain areas.

    If You're Suicidal

    If you're at immediate risk of committing suicide, you need to get help now. Call 911 if you're in the United States or Canada, call the local police, or get yourself to your nearest emergency room.

    If you're not at immediate risk of suicide, but you're having thoughts of suicide and need to get support, call a helpline to talk about how you're feeling and to find resources near you. For example, in the United States, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It's open 24/7, 365 days a week, and it's free and confidential.

    The emotional pain associated with BPD is very intense, and it can leave you feeling as if you are completely alone and will never feel better. Try to remember that there are people who know how to treat BPD and want to help you. Treatment can make a huge difference in your life.

    When a Loved One Is Suicidal

    If your loved one is at immediate risk of committing suicide, you need to get him or her help immediately. You can call 911 yourself if you're in the United States or Canada, or call the police and tell them what's happening. Or, if he or she will let you, take your loved one to the nearest emergency room.

    Sometimes friends or family pick up on signs of suicidality even if their loved one hasn't said anything about suicide. If you think your loved one may be thinking of suicide, but you're not sure, talk to him. Let her know that you're worried about her. Ask him whether your concerns are valid. Offer to help. This can be hard to do because sometimes symptoms can make the person with BPD very difficult to deal with, but for the time being, the most important thing is to help your loved one stay safe no matter what. Showing care and concern for your loved one's safety and well-being can also go a long way.

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