Northern Ireland

Personality disorder: Woman's 'suffocating' illness

Felicity McKee
Image caption Felicity McKee says few people feel like they are able to speak up about personality disorders

"Overwhelming, suffocating and a rollercoaster of emotions."

Those are some of the words Felicity McKee from Armagh uses to describe living with a personality disorder.

The 25-year-old social anthropology student at Queen's University received the dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and what is known as Borderline Personality Disorder five years ago.

She says that, while eating disorders are becoming better understood by the public and professionals, the stigma surrounding personality disorders remains a major issue.


What is a personality disorder?

Generally, people are given a diagnosis of a personality disorder if an enduring pattern of their inner experience and behaviour causes regular and long term problems in the way they cope with life, interact with others and respond emotionally.

While figures on how many people have a personality disorder are hard to obtain, a UK-wide psychiatric morbidity survey from 2000 estimated it affected 4.4% of the population - or one in 25.

Symptoms can include self harm, depression, eating disorders or other mental health disorders. It can have a profound impact on the sufferer, their family and community.

Borderline Personality Disorder is defined in a particular way - there are nine key symptoms and five are needed to make a diagnosis.


Felicity says on bad days she can feel "completely overwhelmed".

"I become a blubbering mess and I am difficult to rationalize with, even though logically I can see something is very, very tiny," she admits.

"It's like suffocating. You are asphyxiating basically on the emotions, choking on them, though you can't find the words for them. It's just so unbelievably difficult."

She says that, as a condition, it is badly misunderstood and there is a real fear of judgement.

Image caption Felicity McKee says personality disorder as a condition is badly misunderstood and there is a real fear of judgement

"Few people feel like they are able to speak up about it, because there is such stigma associated with it and most of those, if not all of the stereotypes and stigma, are untrue.

"That prevents people from accessing treatment and feeling worthy of accessing treatment, for fear of what the reaction will be," she said.

Felicity's poor health means she spends a lot of time in hospital.

In fact this year she has been admitted 18 times for her eating disorder and, once, as a result of her border personality diagnosis.

According to Felicity it is important that as a result of her dual diagnosis medical teams communicate with each other.

'Stigma remains a problem'

Siobhan O'Neill, a professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University, says the stigma remains a problem.

"More and more people will disclose aspects of other mental illnesses, but not with personality disorders.

"This may be because of the definition - that it is fixed and deterministic.

"In fact, that's not the case and people with it can function at a very high level. But stigma remains around the word. The sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the person's personality."

Felicity feels that her dual diagnosis, in itself, can be a problem and that she can fall between services.

She says more joined-up services are needed.

"I would like recognition of the fact that, while the eating disorder is there, it is also linked into the fact I have Borderline Personality Disorder," she said.

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