There are many patients I have seen who have had some mixture of the following symptoms or experiences:
1) sudden, intense shifts of mood, often towards extreme sadness, emptiness, or rage. Often times, these sudden shifts occur in the context of a relationship event (a disappointment with someone, a conflictual conversation, a breakup, etc.)
2) very chaotic interpersonal relationships -- lots of conflict, sometimes a lot of aggression, sometimes frequent break-ups, reconciliations, break-ups, reconciliations, etc. Sometimes this is a product of the person having chosen a partner with a chaotic relationship style, but sometimes this relationship chaos occurs even with a partner who is calm
3) prominent, longstanding thoughts about suicide, even when mood is better
4) frequent self-injurious behaviour (most frequently, cutting skin with a razor), which is often done to relieve extreme emotional tension. Sometimes self-injury or suicide attempts occur as a form of non-verbal interpersonal communication or protest.
5) prominent, longstanding self-hatred
6) symptoms which "seem psychotic", such as hallucinations, paranoia, or thought disorganization of various types, but which do not have the characteristic qualities or patterns found in psychotic illness such as schizophrenia
7) pronounced confusion about identity, often with respect to gender, sexuality, or "sense of self"
8) difficulty with relationship boundaries
9) a chaotic and often very negative set of experiences with doctors, the health care system, etc.
10) hospital stays in which symptoms got worse rather than better
I have seen many for whom these symptoms were their manifestation of depression, or part of a type of bipolar disorder, and for whom these issues improved following standard treatments for mood disorder.
For others, some of these symptoms are part of a post-traumatic syndrome.
I have seen many others for whom these symptoms seemed to be part of a developmental struggle, arising with adolescence or earlier, and resolving with time, support, work, development of purpose, meaning, community, autonomy, etc. Often a fairly short-term experience of therapy has helped.
For others, these symptoms become more lasting phenomena, and may in fact become more and more entrenched with time. It is as though the person has a chaotic relationship with time itself, which feeds the symptoms, rather than relieving them.
Some of the symptoms, such as self-injury, seem to have strong addictive components. Other types of addictive behaviours (such as substance abuse) are common in this population as well.
For many of my patients, there is so much overlap between "depression" and so-called "borderline personality traits" that I don't find that there is much point being concerned with "labeling" at all, since the same things help with both.
Here are some things that I have found to be helpful in all cases (in addition my standard advice about a healthy, happy lifestyle):
1) gentle, supportive, compassionate, friendly, consistent care in a setting with clear but non-rigid boundaries
2) treatment of specific symptoms pharmacologically (e.g. antidepressants may help with mood; anticonvulsants or antipsychotics may help with anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and lability; stimulants may help with inattention, hyperactivity, or distractability)
3) avoidance of harm (e.g. I would tend to avoid prescribing potentially addictive medications, or medications that are particularly dangerous in overdose; also some types of overly confrontational, reactive, over-medicalized, suggestive, dogmatic, or "digging into the past" styles of psychotherapy can probably be overtly harmful for some people, especially if the therapy style is engaged in without the patient's full understanding or consent).
4) gentle attention to the same kind of dynamics happening in the therapy as what happens in other relationships (e.g. intense conflicts, feelings of abandonment, "chaos"), and an attempt to gently work it out rather than let the symptoms threaten the relationship
5) cognitive-therapy techniques of various types can be particularly helpful; specifically Linehan's "Dialectical Behavioural Therapy" which is a type of cognitive therapy enriched by ideas from Buddhist mindfulness. Also Linehan's ideas emphasize the idea of "validation" which I consider extremely important -- symptoms need to be calmly understood, empathized with, rather than discounted or dismissed
6) long-term dynamically-oriented psychotherapy, 1-on-1 or group (or both). There is an expanding strong evidence base that this helps a lot
7) trying neither to over-react (e.g. push for an immediate hospital visit), nor to under-react (e.g. ignore or dismiss), regarding suicidal thoughts or self-injury; but to try to be understanding and helpful in any case
8) I do not tend to recommend hospitalization, especially through an emergency admission, as a cornerstone of therapy, except I do encourage people to use the emergency rooms if they cannot survive safely through the day and they do not feel they have other resources available. I believe it is much more therapeutic for people to choose themselves whether or not to use the emergency room.
9) a good day-program, if available, can be very helpful. These are harder to find nowadays
A few references:
(a Cochrane review of psychotherapy for borderline personality)
(a Cochrane review of medication for borderline personality; this shows, as I would expect, a modest and inconsistent evidence base, which I think supports the idea of being open-minded about using pharmacological therapies, but perhaps of having modest expectations of them, and being wary of relying too heavily on medication treatments alone)
(a randomized study showing broad, large effects from psychotherapy in patients having a borderline personality diagnosis, over a 1-year period)
(a study with an 8 year follow-up! --we need more such very long-term studies-- It shows that an intensive day program approach was very helpful)
(another longer-term study showing substantial benefits from psychotherapy)
It is important to note that many with so-called "borderline personality" may have depression or other problems at the same time, and each of these problems may improve with specific types of therapy. Many studies are not considering these "comorbid" conditions, and therefore underestimate the effectiveness of various types of therapy.
Here is a link to a dialectical-behavior therapy self-help site: