Pete Davidson broke the ice surrounding borderline personality disorder — an expert brings you the facts

When Saturday Night Live star (and former Ariana Grande fiancé) Pete Davidson opened up about his struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD) last year, he found himself the target of online criticism. In particular, the pushback seemed to focus on the inability of people with BPD to be in a relationship. Davidson fired back at critics on his Instagram in May.

“Normally I wouldn’t comment on something like this,” he wrote. “But [I’ve] been hearing a lot of ‘people with BPD can’t be in relationships’ talk. I just wanna let you know that’s not true. Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean they can’t be happy and in a relationship. It also doesn’t mean that person makes a relationship toxic.”

In a video for Yahoo Lifestyle, Ali Mattu, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, commends Davidson’s decision. “There are a lot of ways in which you can experience borderline personality disorder, and I think it’s amazing that Pete Davidson has been so open about his experience,” he says. “But while there are many things that Davidson got right, there are a few aspects of BPD he confused.”

So what is borderline personality disorder, and how many people does it affect?

“[BPD] has four main problem areas,” says Mattu. “The first is about identity, understanding yourself and who you are. Number two, it’s about relationships, a long pattern of difficult relationships. Number three, difficulty managing intense emotions. And number four involves doing things that are are impulsive, like self-injury or substance abuse.”

Exact causes of BPD are tough to pinpoint, but Mattu says there are contributing factors. “We know borderline personality disorder emerges from a combination of biology, environment and experience,” he says. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 1.4 percent of the population suffer from BPD — most in conjunction with another mental illness.

Of those diagnosed with BPD, NIMH shows that more than 60 percent also suffer from an anxiety disorder, more than 34 percent cope with a mood disorder, more than 38 percent struggle with substance abuse, and 49 percent struggle with impulse control.

Although there is a high prevalence of anxiety and depression in those with BPD, Mattu says it’s important not to conflate them. “Something Davidson mentioned that isn’t quite accurate is that BPD is a type of depression,” he says. “Depression is a mood disorder. It’s about feeling low — or, in the case of bipolar depression, feeling low or feeling high. … BPD is a little bit different. It’s a longer pattern of problems. And why that’s an important distinction is that different treatments work for [each].”

The gold standard of treatment for BPD is what’s called dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that revolves around building new habits to combat negative thoughts. So while BPD can be intense, it’s important to recognize that it’s very treatable. “For a long time we didn’t have any treatments that worked for borderline personality disorder — but we do now,” says Mattu. “There are a number of effective treatments available, and there is help and there is hope.”

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