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Personality disorders: symptoms, diagnosis, causes

3-minute read

A personality disorder is characterised by a long-term and pervasive pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviours that cause distress and interfere with someone’s ability to cope in many different areas of their life.

Many people with personality disorders have long-term difficulties with relationships, sustaining work, or substance abuse. They may also have other mental disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of personality disorders

Each individual personality disorder has its own unique symptoms and behaviours. Many people have some of these traits, but they do not necessarily have a diagnosis of personality disorder.

People with personality disorders may be unaware that they have a problem or may find it hard to seek help. Family or friends may be severely impacted by caring for someone with a personality disorder and they may be the ones to seek assistance.

Diagnosing a personality disorder

The first step towards diagnosis and finding help is to see a doctor or mental health professional and have a mental health assessment. The doctor will ask questions about the current symptoms and any recent events, as well as past mental health issues, family background, relationships, medical history and any drug or alcohol problems.

The doctor may also do a physical examination or blood tests to rule out medical issues. They may need to refer to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further assessment or treatment. A diagnosis of personality disorder may take some time to establish since a health professional will need time to get to know the person.

What causes personality disorders?

The causes of personality disorders are not fully understood.

We know that personality in general is formed in childhood as a result of the interactions between genetic (inherited) and early environmental factors. There is no single gene for personality or personality disorders - multiple genes are involved. Having a secure bonding process or attachment between a parent (or other caregiver) and an infant provides a positive environment in which their personality can develop.

Groups of people with personality disorders (particularly certain types, such as borderline personality disorder) have high rates of childhood abuse, trauma or neglect.

It is thought that personality disorders may arise due to a complex interaction between negative early life experiences and genetic factors. Disruptions to the attachment between parents and infants can occur through mental or physical illness or substance abuse in the parent, or long separations between parents and infants. A lack of positive caregiving in early childhood can also have a negative impact on personality development.

Some people with personality disorders may be at risk of harming themselves or others. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or dial triple zero (000) if you or someone you know has attempted to or is at risk of attempting to harm themselves or someone else.

Last reviewed: December 2016

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