1 in 10 affected: Understanding Personality Disorders

April 26, 2013

personality disorders

Image Credit: Alexis Tejeda

It is estimated that 10% of the population have some form of personality disorder (PD) (source: BBC Health). Does this figure surprise you? Alarm you? If so, you are not alone. In fact, our shocking lack of general awareness has led mental health charity Mind to describe PD as ‘one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized diagnoses in mental health.

These long-held misconceptions mean that, for people living with a diagnosis, the world can feel like a lonely place.

Given the fact that PDs are so common, why do most of us know so little about them? And how can we begin to break down the walls that leave people with PD feeling isolated?

This article explains what we mean by the term ‘personality disorder’ and offers practical advice about helping others and helping yourself, both at home and in the workplace.

What are personality disorders?

The term ‘personality disorder’ does not just refer to one condition. Mind explains that psychologists tend to categorize personality disorders under three general sub-headings:

  • Suspicious (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial)
  • Emotional and Impulsive (borderline, histrionic, narcissistic)
  • Anxious (avoidant, dependent, obsessive compulsive)

People in the first category tend to be wary of others and unwilling to form close relationships. People in this category are often diagnosed with schizophrenia. People in the second category tend to be prone to mood swings and often display unpredictable behaviour. People in the third category tend to feel as though they need complete control over every aspect of their lives, which can lead to obsessive behaviour.

Aren’t people with personality disorders dangerous?

Frightening stories in the press have certainly not helped this myth. While it is true that Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) is common amongst people with a criminal conviction, clinical psychologists proved that most people with a PD are neither violent nor dangerous. Because PDs can lead to feelings of depression and low self-worth, often the individual is more likely to harm themselves than to harm others.

Conditions such as ASPD are at the more serious end of the spectrum. Most people with a PD experience symptoms that are somewhere in between.

What are the causes?

There is some evidence to suggest that personality disorders are genetic. It is also thought that experiencing abuse or trauma, particularly at a young age, can be a triggering factor.

Whatever the causes, treatment options such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offered by clinical psychologists or psychotherapist tend to focus on how to deal with the symptoms in the present, rather than looking into the past. CBT is one of many modern treatment options that some people find very effective.

Helping others

Some people misunderstand the symptoms of a personality disorder and assume that the sufferer is simply being melodramatic or exaggerating their problems. When family or friends offer advice, the person’s condition means that they only hear the negatives and may even feel as though others are turning against them. At the heart of their condition is the desire to be loved and accepted, but often, they do not know how to ask.

To help a loved one who has been diagnosed with a personality disorder, do not judge or criticize them. Often this ‘tough love’ approach can make them feel hurt and ashamed. Instead, remind them of the things you love about their personality, as well as their strengths and abilities. Equip yourself with information about their condition and offer to go with them to see a mental health professional who will be able to explain the different treatment approaches. Encourage them to do activities that bring out their best qualities, for example joining a club or interest group, which will help to build their self-esteem. If unsure how to deal with certain situations, speak to their counselling psychologists or psychotherapist.

Helping yourself

The good news is that the government finally recognizes the need for improved treatment of PD, and today a wide range of treatment options are available. Whichever treatment is prescribed, it will usually involve group and individual psychotherapy, encouragement to continue with the programme, education and planning for crisis. Psychological treatments can be offered as an in- or out-patient at a hospital or day centre. Above all, the relationship of trust between you and your social worker, psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist is the key to progress.

Some people also find that their condition improves as they get older, as the experiences they gather help them to deal with life’s ups and downs.

Personality Disorders in the Workplace

Many people with a personality disorder have an ordinary career. In fact, in 2005, psychologists from the University of Surrey found that a large proportion of highly successful business executives studied had histrionic, narcissistic or obsessive personality disorders.

Unfortunately, personality disorders can sometimes cause problems in the workplace. In these cases, the individual’s condition means that they are less effective at handling the pressures and social politics of the working environment.

In this situation, the employer should deal sensitively and tactfully with specific problems and complaints without being accusatory or judgmental. The focus should be on reinforcing appropriate workplace conduct and goal-setting.

If you feel that your personality disorder has led to discrimination in the workplace or any other situation, mental health solicitors can provide you with the legal support you need and deserve.

The 10% ratio means that it is more than likely that someone you know – a friend, colleague or acquaintance – is affected by a personality disorder. Educating ourselves is the best way to understand and help individuals with one of these conditions and, eventually, defeat the stigma that surrounds them.

For more information, visit mental health charity Mind.org.uk.