Psychological therapies for borderline personality disorder

People with borderline personality disorder often have difficulties controlling their emotions and impulses, and find it hard to keep relationships. They can experience feelings of emptiness, suffer quick changes in mood and they may harm themselves. Problems coping with abandonment and a rapidly changing view of other people can form part of their difficulties. All of these things make it hard for them to engage with any treatment they may be offered. Those who are able to engage often find it hard to stick with the treatment and leave before the end. Certain types of psychological treatment ('talking therapies') have been developed in recent years to help people with this disorder. This review summarises what is currently known about the effects of these treatments. It updates a review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) in 2006 and it was superseded by a new review (with the same title) in the CDSR in 2020.

We found 28 studies that had involved a total of 1804 people with borderline personality disorder. These studies examined various psychological treatments. Some of these are called 'comprehensive' treatments because the person talks one-to-one with a professional for at least part of the time. Other treatments are called 'non-comprehensive' because they do not involve this one-to-one work.

A number of studies have been carried out on one particular type of comprehensive treatment, called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. For this treatment, there were sufficient studies for us to pool the results and draw conclusions. The results indicate Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is helpful for people with borderline personality disorder. Effects included a decrease in inappropriate anger, a reduction in self-harm and an improvement in general functioning.

There were generally too few studies to allow firm conclusions to be drawn about the value of all the other kinds of psychotherapeutic interventions evaluated. However, single studies show encouraging findings for each treatment that was investigated, both 'comprehensive' and 'non-comprehensive' types. More research is needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

There are indications of beneficial effects for both comprehensive psychotherapies as well as non-comprehensive psychotherapeutic interventions for BPD core pathology and associated general psychopathology. DBT has been studied most intensely, followed by MBT, TFP, SFT and STEPPS. However, none of the treatments has a very robust evidence base, and there are some concerns regarding the quality of individual studies. Overall, the findings support a substantial role for psychotherapy in the treatment of people with BPD but clearly indicate a need for replicatory studies.

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Psychotherapy is regarded as the first-line treatment for people with borderline personality disorder. In recent years, several disorder-specific interventions have been developed. This is an update of a review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) in 2006 and it was superseded by a new review (with the same title) in the CDSR in 2020.


To assess the effects of psychological interventions for borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Search strategy: 

We searched the following databases: CENTRAL 2010(3), MEDLINE (1950 to October 2010), EMBASE (1980 to 2010, week 39), ASSIA (1987 to November 2010), BIOSIS (1985 to October 2010), CINAHL (1982 to October 2010), Dissertation Abstracts International (31 January 2011), National Criminal Justice Reference Service Abstracts (15 October 2010), PsycINFO (1872 to October Week 1 2010), Science Citation Index (1970 to 10 October 2010), Social Science Citation Index (1970 to 10 October 2010), Sociological Abstracts (1963 to October 2010), ZETOC (15 October 2010) and the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (15 October 2010). In addition, we searched Dissertation Abstracts International in January 2011 and ICTRP in August 2011.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised studies with samples of patients with BPD comparing a specific psychotherapeutic intervention against a control intervention without any specific mode of action or against a comparative specific psychotherapeutic intervention. Outcomes included overall BPD severity, BPD symptoms (DSM-IV criteria), psychopathology associated with but not specific to BPD, attrition and adverse effects.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed the risk of bias in the studies and extracted data.

Main results: 

Twenty-eight studies involving a total of 1804 participants with BPD were included. Interventions were classified as comprehensive psychotherapies if they included individual psychotherapy as a substantial part of the treatment programme, or as non-comprehensive if they did not.

Among comprehensive psychotherapies, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), mentalisation-based treatment in a partial hospitalisation setting (MBT-PH), outpatient MBT (MBT-out), transference-focused therapy (TFP), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dynamic deconstructive psychotherapy (DDP), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) and interpersonal therapy for BPD (IPT-BPD) were tested against a control condition. Direct comparisons of comprehensive psychotherapies included DBT versus client-centered therapy (CCT); schema-focused therapy (SFT) versus TFP; SFT versus SFT plus telephone availability of therapist in case of crisis (SFT+TA); cognitive therapy (CT) versus CCT, and CT versus IPT.

Non-comprehensive psychotherapeutic interventions comprised DBT-group skills training only (DBT-ST), emotion regulation group therapy (ERG), schema-focused group therapy (SFT-G), systems training for emotional predictability and problem solving for borderline personality disorder (STEPPS), STEPPS plus individual therapy (STEPPS+IT), manual-assisted cognitive treatment (MACT) and psychoeducation (PE). The only direct comparison of an non-comprehensive psychotherapeutic intervention against another was MACT versus MACT plus therapeutic assessment (MACT+). Inpatient treatment was examined in one study where DBT for PTSD (DBT-PTSD) was compared with a waiting list control. No trials were identified for cognitive analytical therapy (CAT).

Data were sparse for individual interventions, and allowed for meta-analytic pooling only for DBT compared with treatment as usual (TAU) for four outcomes. There were moderate to large statistically significant effects indicating a beneficial effect of DBT over TAU for anger (n = 46, two RCTs; standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.83, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.43 to -0.22; I2 = 0%), parasuicidality (n = 110, three RCTs; SMD -0.54, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.16; I2 = 0%) and mental health (n = 74, two RCTs; SMD 0.65, 95% CI 0.07 to 1.24 I2 = 30%). There was no indication of statistical superiority of DBT over TAU in terms of keeping participants in treatment (n = 252, five RCTs; risk ratio 1.25, 95% CI 0.54 to 2.92).

All remaining findings were based on single study estimates of effect. Statistically significant between-group differences for comparisons of psychotherapies against controls were observed for BPD core pathology and associated psychopathology for the following interventions: DBT, DBT-PTSD, MBT-PH, MBT-out, TFP and IPT-BPD. IPT was only indicated as being effective in the treatment of associated depression. No statistically significant effects were found for CBT and DDP interventions on either outcome, with the effect sizes moderate for DDP and small for CBT. For comparisons between different comprehensive psychotherapies, statistically significant superiority was demonstrated for DBT over CCT (core and associated pathology) and SFT over TFP (BPD severity and treatment retention). There were also encouraging results for each of the non-comprehensive psychotherapeutic interventions investigated in terms of both core and associated pathology.

No data were available for adverse effects of any psychotherapy.