Self-mutilation and suicide attempts: relationships to bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, temperament and character

Peter R Joyce, Katrina J Light, Sarah L Rowe, C Robert Cloninger, Martin A Kennedy
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2010, 44 (3): 250-7

OBJECTIVE: Self-mutilation has traditionally been associated with borderline personality disorder, and seldom examined separately from suicide attempts. Clinical experience suggests that self-mutilation is common in bipolar disorder.

METHODS: A family study was conducted on the molecular genetics of depression and personality, in which the proband had been treated for depression. All probands and parents or siblings were interviewed with a structured interview and completed the Temperament and Character Inventory.

RESULTS: Fourteen per cent of subjects interviewed reported a history of self-mutilation, mostly by wrist cutting. Self-mutilation was more common in bipolar I disorder subjects then in any other diagnostic groups. In multiple logistic regression self-mutilation was predicted by mood disorder diagnosis and harm avoidance, but not by borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, the relatives of non-bipolar depressed probands with self-mutilation had higher rates of bipolar I or II disorder and higher rates of self-mutilation. Sixteen per cent of subjects reported suicide attempts and these were most common in those with bipolar I disorder and in those with borderline personality disorder. On multiple logistic regression, however, only mood disorder diagnosis and harm avoidance predicted suicide attempts. Suicide attempts, unlike self-mutilation, were not familial.

CONCLUSIONS: Self-mutilation and suicide attempts are only partially overlapping behaviours, although both are predicted by mood disorder diagnosis and harm avoidance. Self-mutilation has a particularly strong association with bipolar disorder. Clinicians need to think of bipolar disorder, not borderline personality disorder, when assessing an individual who has a history of self-mutilation.

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