Borderline personality disorder and dehumanising women

Psychiatrisation has long been used to shut women up when they’re saying things viewed as controversial or socially unacceptable; by suggesting that they’re crazy, they can be shunted off to the background, their views invalidated. This tactic exists today just as it did in the past. While women might not be pushed into asylums to silence them, they still experience social marginalisation as people accuse them of being ‘crazy’ for having rational responses to society, or simply for speaking their minds. Troublesome women threaten to destabilise society and thus society at large responds by trying to turn them into something other than women.

The in-trend diagnosis to slap women with is borderline personality disorder, a totally treatable mental health condition that can contribute to unstable moods and relationships along with impulsive behaviour. It manifests differently in every individual (and diagnosis overlap can mean that what one psychiatrist identifies as borderline personality disorder is regarded as something else by another practitioner). Suicide attempts are common, along with other forms of self-harm. Treatment options are available, though it can take time to find the right fit—many patients benefit from medications as well as therapy, and some pursue other options as well.

That borderline personality disorder exists is undeniable. What is also not deniable, however, is that the condition is heavily stereotyped and stigmatised. Even some people conscious about mental health issues have a tendency to handwave when it comes to this serious mental health condition, effectively writing people with borderline personality disorder off. They’re treated as people who can’t make genuine human connections, function in society, cooperate collaboratively, think beyond themselves. Some suggests that people with the condition are psychopaths, claiming they have no morals or ability to act with compassion towards other living beings.

These attitudes are really reiterated by presentations in media and pop culture. Borderline personality disorder, we learn, is a horrible and intractable mental health condition, one of the worst of the worst. We’re also told that it primary affects women, and there’s not much interrogation of the fact that this diagnosis often sounds suspiciously like the ‘hysteria’ of old, the so-called ‘wandering womb’ that led women to rampage out of control because they just couldn’t contain themselves. They couldn’t be trusted to engage equally with society because of their natural feminine weakness.

BPD, in this sense, is the new hysteria. It’s the perfect dismissive label used to marginalise women, whether or not they have the condition, though for women who do, this casually hateful commentary comes with an additional sting. To fight a stigmatised mental health condition throughout your life is a struggle because you need not only to address your own health problems, but to fight the social perceptions that make it hard to recover. These same perceptions are exactly the sort of thing that also lead to setbacks in treatment; when you’re told that you’re worthless and irredeemable, it’s hard to retain self-esteem and the confidence to believe that yes, you do belong in society.

This condition’s role in dehumanising women is perhaps most markedly easy to illustrate by the way many people refer to people who have borderline personality disorder: As ‘borderlines.’ As in ‘borderlines do this’ and ‘I dated a borderline once and she was totally crazy’ and ‘she must be a borderline.’ Referring to people solely by a mental health diagnosis, with no qualifiers, turns them into the disease itself—this is ‘borderline’ as a noun, interchangeable with a person’s entire identity. All that matters is that someone has BPD, and there’s nothing else about her that’s relevant. Even her name doesn’t matter, she’s just ‘that borderline.’

This kind of thinking is hugely popular, and it’s especially common in settings where people want to convince each other to ignore a woman as quickly and efficiently as possible. Tagging women with any mental health condition tends to contribute to the notion that she’s unreliable and her voice in invalid. However, slapping someone with BPD can be especially brutal, because many of the diagnostic criteria for BPD effectively deprive women of their voices—they suggest that patients are irrational, can’t make intelligent decisions, speak and behave erratically. Everything out of the mouth of ‘a borderline,’ in other words, can’t really be trusted, because she can’t speak with authority or balance. Can’t control herself.

Naturally, none of the people using this kind of mental health labeling are actual mental health practitioners meeting with their patients through multiple sessions to learn more about their symptoms and medical history. They aren’t therapists or members of a patient’s care team who evaluate issues that patients want to work on and develop a care plan. They also don’t (or shouldn’t) have access to someone’s medical records, and thus have no idea if someone has a mental health condition or not—unless someone openly discloses—and even in cases where people do openly talk about mentally ill, they don’t necessarily talk about the details of their diagnoses, in part because of situations exactly like this.

No, instead people assign this label on the basis of their personal opinions about a woman. It’s armchair diagnosis, and it’s hateful on its face but also because few people stop to question. The important larger discussion about why people are so eager to label a woman as ‘a borderline’ gets swallowed up in the collective decision to ignore her because she’s clearly crazy—someone says so, and it doesn’t matter who arrived at that conclusion or how, how the rumor originated.

So long as mental health remains stigmatised, being labeled with any mental health condition will be dangerous, no matter what it is. And being outed or labeled will also be dehumanising. But the current weaponisation of borderline personality disorder shouldn’t be going unnoticed.

Image: Broken Life, Wendy, Flickr