Remembering the 'Father' of Borderline Personality Disorder
According to McLean Hospital, on January 11, 2019, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, borderline personality disorder (BPD) advocate and researcher, Dr. John Gunderson, passed away of prostate cancer. He was surrounded by his family at his home.
As one of the most notable researchers on borderline personality disorder, he has long been known as “the father of borderline personality disorder.”
Early on in his career, he noticed during a 10-year study on schizophrenia, that many BPD patients were misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia. This disorder was historically viewed as untreatable and originally mistakenly referred to as “borderline schizophrenia.” But clearly, with the wrong diagnosis, patients do not receive appropriate and effective treatment, and may not improve. He recognized this issue, and began to set out to study and research BPD, which eventually led to international recognition of BPD.
It is an understatement to say Dr. John Gunderson dedicated his life career to the treatment and research of borderline personality disorder. He was the founder of McLean’s Borderline Center, and the BPD treatment center was named after him, called the Gunderson Residence.
Dr. Gunderson worked long and hard to have BPD recognized and treated, as it should be. According to McLean’s memoriam, “Dr. Gunderson always had compassion for patients with BPD and firmly believed that the illness was treatable. Thus, he dedicated his career to developing, evaluating, and disseminating scientifically proven treatments for people with this condition.”
This memoriam also notes his 250 published articles, 100 reviews and 12 books in the field earned him more than 30 national and international awards, including America’s Best Doctors: The Two Thousand Best Doctors and International Who’s Who in Medicine.
Outside of his research and clinical work, he loved painting, gardening, golfing, fishing and playing basketball.
According to Harvard Medical School’s affiliate, Mclean Hospital, Dr. Gunderson’s:
Studies on the diagnosis, families, psychodynamics, treatment, and pathogenesis of borderline personality disorder helped transform the diagnosis from a psychoanalytic construct into an empirically validated and internationally recognized disorder and earned him recognition as the “father” of this disorder.
Dr. Gunderson chaired the DSM IV workgroup on personality disorders, and has led major NIMH-funded studies on both the longitudinal stability and the family transmission of [BPD]… Dr. Gunderson’s research in interpersonal hypersensitivity and familial vulnerability has shown that BPD has a latent unifying genetic structure.
As someone with BPD myself, I am unfortunately incredibly aware of and have experienced the rapid stigma of BPD, which I elaborate on in my BPD stigma article here. After enduring such experiences, it has always been comforting, much needed and motivating to know of professionals who fight the stigma and hold onto hope for the lives, treatment and outcomes of those with BPD.
As a passionate psychology student, I have closely studied his work and had the opportunity to be published in an anthology he edited, which is titled, “Beyond Borderline: True Stories of Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder. At multiple points in the book, he states and emphasizes the resiliency, strength and determination those of us who struggle with BPD possess. This book draws attention to the stigma of BPD and offers an opportunity for a deeper understanding.
Only a few of Dr. Gunderson’s notable BPD findings include:
- An empirically validated and effective treatment he developed for BPD called general psychiatric management (GPM), with the goal to make treatment for BPD more accessible in community outpatient settings
- A 10-year study that showed BPD is independent from bipolar disorder, and that when depression and BPD occur together, BPD needs to be prioritized in treatment, due to its effects on the co-morbid depression
- A 10-year follow up study, which draws attention to two important findings: many difficulties within social functioning persists after remission, which emphasizes the public health concern, need for treatment and resources for BPD, and that BPD remission is attainable.
Dr. Gunderson’s work will continue to impact millions of lives.
Thank you, Dr. Gunderson, for your dedication towards helping those with BPD and for transforming the BPD literature. You instilled an abundance of hope into the community.
“Borderline patients have a right to assume professionals who treat them have been trained to do so.”
— Dr. John Gunderson, 1942-2019
Resources authored by and featuring Dr. John Gunderson:
- BPD Brief Article: What is Borderline Personality Disorder?
- Short Video: Short explanation of BPD
- Short Video: Short explanation of BPD symptoms/criteria
- Short Video: The true prevalence of BPD and the gender differences myth
- Brief Course Modules for Professionals: Free brief course module on BPD diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes
Screenshot via BorderlinerNotes’ YouTube page