The following piece discusses the topic of suicide and self-harm, and it may be a trigger for some people. Please call the numbers below if you need help.
This week is Borderline Personality Disorder awareness week. I thought I would use the opportunity to explain to people what it’s like being a Christian and having Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is a condition that is very misunderstood. It’s the mental illness you don’t want to get because it has a high level of stigma, even in the mental health world.
BPD occurs when a person has an ability to experience intense emotions. You can be totally fine, and then all of a sudden you are experiencing overwhelming emotions. Biologically we are more sensitive to emotions. It is not all doom and gloom being more sensitive, because we can be more empathic, and have a high sense of justice. It is a gift that can be empowering. Often as a result of stigma, the strength of being highly sensitive is not enhanced, but sadly judged as negative or a deficit in a person’s character.
The other component of BPD is that generally the person has experienced some sort of trauma. The person may not have been taught how to properly manage their intense emotions or have been in an invalidating environment. This generally means that they have turned inward, and have self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, including suicidal ideation. Problematic behaviours are often developed as a coping mechanism.
Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is a therapy designed for people with BPD. DBT skills are broken down into three categories, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation. The catch phrase of DBT is all about living a life that is worth living.
I recently heard someone say life is worth living because Jesus lives. It reminded me of the DBT catch phrase, and led me to think that although the DBT skills have a lot of biblical principles underlying it, the nature of BPD in and of itself can be so contrary to the Bible.
Being a Christian with BPD can be extremely challenging. A person with BPD is often filled with so much shame about the trauma that has occurred that they can be filled with self-hatred and a belief that it will be better off for everyone if they no longer existed. This is so contrary to the Bible where we are taught that we are created to be image bearers of God. But often underlying the self-loathing of a person with BPD is a belief that they are worthless. Some feel that there is no meaning to their existence. This is again contrary to the word of God that tells us that our worth, value and purpose in life is only found in Him.
It is also extremely challenging being in a Christian community with BPD. With BPD you have difficulties with interpersonal effectiveness, which in my experience is magnified in a Christian community. Since taking a step back in my involvement in Christian communities I have seen a huge improvement in my mental health. I have also never felt stronger in my relationship with God and have really begun to understand who Jesus is.
I think it is very easy when you are mentally ill to get a distorted image of who God is. I wonder just how much the interaction with other Christians affects this. I know my experience with BPD and Christianity is limited, and others with BPD may not experience the same type of interaction with Christian communities. However, from my experience I hope to provide suggestions as to how Christian communities can help people with BPD feel loved, accepted and part of the family of God.
Making Judgements – We know that people with BPD have very negative perspectives of themselves. This is only made worse when people make judgements about their behaviours, without seeing that they are mentally unwell. It is not helpful for people with BPD to have others point out flaws in their character or sins they may have committed. By doing so, you are running the risk of a person with BPD attempting suicide based on what you have told them. That is the stark reality of BPD. Furthermore, it is up to Jesus to judge a person, and convict them of sin. Jesus helps the person change in the process of sanctification, not people.
Rejection– One of the greatest fears of people with BPD is being rejected. We can struggle to trust or get close to people because we think they are just going to reject us. If you are communicating something verbally or by written means, you need to be aware that a person with BPD views everything in the framework of rejection. Therefore, when you think that communication could be interpreted as rejection, it is imperative you ensure that the person with BPD is not alone. If the person with BPD is in an episode they are likely to attempt suicide and self-harm when they receive that type of communication. To not ensure a person’s safety prior to giving that communication is negligent.
Sharing – It is so dangerous to be sharing mental health struggles with untrained people in a group or with pastors who have no mental health training. It is the discretion of the person with BPD to decide what to share, and sharing should not be coerced, particularly given trauma is part of the story of a person with BPD. The brain cannot tell the difference between experiencing trauma or telling a story of past trauma. In saying that a person with any mental illness should not be silenced in sharing their struggles if they want to, as this creates stigma within the community.
Mental Health Professionals – I do believe that Christian communities have every right to ensure the safety of it’s members and it would be negligent not to. However, no organisation has the right to veto the instructions given by mental health professionals. BPD is so complex and therefore, only mental health professionals should decide the steps to be taken when a person is in crisis. Furthermore, refusal to provide mental health professionals with information about what led to a suicide attempt is simply negligent.
To the People with BPD – God uses both Christians and non-Christians to help you. He is not limited in who He uses. It was the tears of my physiotherapist as I explained to her events that had occurred in my life, which made me see that perhaps my life is valuable and that people want me around. She is not a Christian, but God still used her to show me that people do love me, but more importantly He loves me, so much so that He sent His son to die on the Cross. Although I may not think I have value and worth because of my distorted BPD views, the Bible tells me that I do have value and worth because of Jesus.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call any of the following phone numbers to talk to a trained counsellor:
Kids Helpline1800 551 800
Beyond Blue1300 224 636
Headspace1800 0650 890
SANE Australia1800 187 263
Suicide Call Back Service1300 659 467