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Personality disorders

The term "personality disorder" is a label used to describe people who have difficulties starting or maintaining relationships, often to the extent where they struggle to work, study or enjoy a good quality of life. There are many techniques, from talk therapy to medication, that our psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists can use to help people with diagnosed personality disorders to better understand their condition, and thus live better lives.

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Do I have a personality disorder? 

Personality disorder (PD) is described by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as a condition which impacts the ability of those suffering from it to learn from things that happen to them or have difficulties changing the bits of their personality that cause them problems. 

Typical symptoms include difficulties: 

  • Forming or keeping close relationships.
  • Keeping out of trouble.
  • Controlling feelings or behaviour.
  • Listening to other people.

Life is more difficult for people with a  personality disorder (whether diagnosed or undiagnosed). They are therefore more likely to have other mental health problems such as depression, or abuse drugs or alcohol.

What a personality disorder is not

The above list may be familiar to most people at different times in their lives. If these symptoms occur only occasionally or during specific periods of stress, you probably don't have a personality disorder. Personality disorder is diagnosed only when symptoms are severe enough to cause ongoing problems in more than one area of a person’s life – for example, if a person often has trouble with the police, has been arrested a number of times, or has trouble staying out of prison. 

Are there different types of personality disorders?

Yes, there are, according to the World Health Organisation. These can be split into three different groups:

  • Cluster A: 'Odd or Eccentric’ (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal)
  • Cluster B: 'Dramatic, Emotional, or Erratic' (antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic)
  • Cluster C: 'Anxious and Fearful' (obsessive compulsive, avoidant, dependant)

People suffering from personality disorders may often show “traits” associated with different groups.

When can personality disorders start? 

Others may notice signs of personality disorder when they are in their childhood or early teen years.

How long does a personality disorder last?

There is evidence that personality disorders improve slowly as people get older. Antisocial behaviour and impulsiveness, in particular, tend to become less frequent as people move through their 30s and 40s.

How many people have a personality disorder? 

As much as 5% of the UK population may have a personality disorder – around 3 million people. 

What causes personality disorders?

As with most mental health conditions, there is no one single cause. That is why it is often easier to think about these things as having risk factors associated with their development.

Risk factors for personality disorders

These include:

  • Genetics – if a close family member suffers from personality disorders, another may well develop similar traits.
  • Brain chemistry – recent research suggests those with antisocial personality disorder may have brains that are structured slightly differently to others’.
  • Childhood trauma – children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, violence in the family or those whose parents who drink too much or abused drugs are at greater risk of developing personality disorders. 

What are the treatments for personality disorders?

Therapy for personality disorders

Therapists recommend using behavioural approaches for PD: 

  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). A combination of cognitive and behavioural therapies, with some techniques from mindfulness. It is particularly helpful in treating borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). An approach that focuses on changing unhelpful patterns of thinking.

Medication for personality disorders

Antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood-stabilising drugs are all used in the treatment of personality disorders. 

Useful resources about personality disorders

Personality Disorder UK

A site for resources for people with PD and their families, commissioned by the Personality Disorder development team from the Department of Health.


The leading UK mental health charity has information about specific personality disorder diagnoses, such as BPD, and how to manage them.

Click here to see practitioners who specialise in personality disorders.