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Evidence-Based Reviews

Borderline personality disorder: STEPPS is practical, evidence-based, easier to use

20-week adjunctive group program improves multiple BPD symptom domains

Vol. 8, No. 10 / October 2009
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Treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) often is viewed as challenging and the results so discouraging that some clinicians avoid referrals of BPD patients.1-3 Psychotherapy has been the treatment mainstay for decades, and supportive approaches are probably the most widely employed.4 Psychodynamic therapy often has been recommended.

This article introduces a new evidence-based group treatment program that we developed for BPD patients. Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving (STEPPS) is founded on the successes of better known psychoeducational models but is easier for practicing psychiatrists to implement.

A different approach to BPD

Linehan5 introduced dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)—a manualized, time-limited, cognitive-behavioral approach in which patients learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors rather than change their personality structure. Other evidence-based BPD treatments include transference-focused psychotherapy,6 schema-focused psychotherapy,7 and Bateman and Fonagy’s mentalization program.8 For a description of the unique challenges presented by BPD patients, see Box.

In the mid-1990s, we set out to create a treatment program for our BPD patients in response to managed care directives to lower the cost of care, decrease length of inpatient treatment, and reduce rehospitalization rates. Despite DBT’s many appealing features, we felt this model was too lengthy and labor-intensive for our treatment setting. We concluded that modifying a program developed by Bartels and Crotty9 would serve our needs. This 12-week psychoeducational program:

  • employs established cognitive-behavioral techniques in group treatment intended to supplement but not replace patients’ ongoing treatment
  • incorporates a “systems” component that recognizes the importance of the patient’s family and friends.

We adapted Bartels and Crotty’s manual (with permission), lengthened the program to 20 weeks, and developed specific session agendas with explicit facilitator guidelines.

We eventually renamed the program Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving (STEPPS)10 and created a new manual (see Related Resources) to simplify group leader training and ensure fidelity to the model. Data from 5 studies, including 2 randomized controlled trials (Table 1), show that STEPPS has a robust antidepressant effect and leads to broad-based improvements in the affective, cognitive, impulsive, and disturbed relationship domains of BPD.11-15


Why treating borderline personality disorder is so challenging

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is 1 of the most challenging mental health conditions. BPD is surprisingly common, with prevalence rates of 0.5% to 1% in the community, 10% in outpatient mental health settings, and up to 20% in inpatient psychiatric settings.a-c Patients with BPD experience substantial functional impairment in several areas (eg, difficulty maintaining employment, disturbed interpersonal relationships, and disrupted family relationships).a,d,e

Many borderline patients have childhood histories of abuse and continue to be victims of domestic and other violence through adulthood.f High utilization of medical and psychiatric health care services is common and costly.g BPD also is associated with substantial psychiatric comorbidity, particularly mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and other Axis II disorders.h,i

Persons with BPD experience intense dysphoria and intrapsychic pain. Characteristic features include affective intensity, reactivity, and lability; a pervasive pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships; marked behavioral impulsivity; unstable self-identity; intense anger; and extreme fear of abandonment.j

The symptom that probably makes the greatest demand on mental health resources is recurrent suicidal threats/attempts or episodes of self-mutilation, many prompted by disappointment in a relationship.k Two-thirds to three-quarters of BPD patients will attempt suicide, with up to 10% eventually completing suicide, often following multiple failed treatments.l


a. Gunderson J. Borderline personality disorder: A clinical guide. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2008.
b. Widiger TA, Frances AJ. Epidemiology, diagnosis, and co-morbidity of borderline personality disorder. In: Tasman A, Hales RE, Frances AJ (eds). American Psychiatric Press Review of Psychiatry, vol. 8. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1989:8-24.
c. Swartz MS, Blazer D, George L, et al. Estimating the prevalence of borderline personality disorder in the community. J Personal Disord. 1990;4:257-272.
d. Nakao K, Gunderson JG, Phillips KA, et al. Functional impairment in personality disorders. J Personal Disord. 1992;6:24-31.
e. Skodol AE, Gunderson JG, McGlashan TH, et al. Functional impairment in patients with schizotypal, borderline, avoidant, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159:276-283.
f. Zanarini MC. Childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2000;23:89-101.
g. Bender DS, Dolan RT, Skodol AE, et al. Treatment utilization by patients with personality disorders. Am J Psychiatry. 2001;158:295-302.
h. Zanarini MC, Frankenburg FR, Dubo ED, et al. Axis I co-morbidity of borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 1998;155:1733-1739.
i. Zimmerman M, Coryell W. DSM-III personality disorder diagnoses in a non-patient sample: demographic correlates and co-morbidity. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1989;46:682-689.
j. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed, text rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1994.
k. Paris J. Social factors in personality disorders— a biopsychosocial approach to etiology and treatment. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1996.
l. Soloff PH, Lynch KG, Kelly TM. Characteristics of suicide attempts of patients with major depressive episode and borderline personality disorder: a comparative study. Am J Psychiatry. 2000;157:601-608.

Table 1

STEPPS: Trials show improvement across BPD domains




Uncontrolled trials

Blum et al, 200211

52 outpatients; 94% female; mean age 33

Significant improvement in BEST score; significant drop in BDI score and the PANAS negative affect scale

Black et al, 200812

12 incarcerated women; mean age 35

Significant improvement in BEST score; significant drop in BDI score and the PANAS negative affect scale

Freije et al, 200213

85 patients; 91% female; mean age 32

Significant improvement in score on a Dutch version of BEST; significant improvement on SCL-90 subscales, especially those rating anxiety, depression, and interpersonal sensitivity

Randomized controlled trials

Blum et al, 200814

165 adults with BPD assigned to STEPPS plus treatment as usual or only treatment as usual

Patients receiving STEPPS plus treatment as usual experienced greater improvements in ZAN-BPD total score, impulsivity, negative affect, mood, and global functioning

van Wel, 200715

79 adults with BPD assigned to STEPPS plus treatment as usual or only treatment as usuals

Patients receiving STEPPS plus treatment as usual had greater improvements in global psychiatric symptoms using the SCL-90, BPD symptoms, and quality of life measures at the end of treatment and at 6-month follow-up

BDI: Beck Depression Inventory; BEST: Borderline Evaluation of Severity Over Time; BPD: borderline personality disorder; PANAS: Positive and Negative Affect Scale; SCL-90: Symptoms Checklist-90; STEPPS: Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving; ZAN-BPD: Zanarini Rating Scale for Borderline Personality Disorder

STEPPS’ theoretical foundation

Because STEPPS employs general psychotherapy principles and techniques commonly taught in graduate-level psychotherapy training programs, it requires little additional training for mental health workers.16 Further, because it supplements ongoing treatment, STEPPS:

  • does not disrupt the patient’s present regimen, and
  • potentially enhances relationship skills by encouraging the patient to remain in longer relationships with professional and non-professional support.

STEPPS also integrates the patient’s ongoing social and professional support system, thereby avoiding the perception of abandonment common among patients with BPD.

STEPPS employs cognitive-behavioral methods, including identifying and challenging distorted thoughts and specific behavioral change, combined with psycho-education and skills training.11,12 The addition of a systems component that enlists the help of the patient’s family and friends is unique to STEPPS (Box 1).

Emotional intensity disorder. Many clinicians assume that the core deficit in BPD is inability to manage emotional intensity. In STEPPS, therapists reframe BPD as emotional intensity disorder (EID), a term patients find easier to understand and accept. Patients tend to “see themselves as driven by the disorder to seek relief from a painful illness through desperate behaviors that are reinforced by negative and distorted thinking.”16 Starting with the first session, STEPPS therapists validate the patients’ experience of BPD and provide hope by teaching that patients can acquire skills to manage the disorder.

Box 1

STEPPS’ systems component: Involving family and friends

In the first Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving (STEPPS) session, patients identify and utilize a “reinforcement team” that consists of any person or persons—family members, professionals, friends, coworkers, etc.—who agree to assist the patient in reinforcing STEPPS skills. The systems perspective emphasizes patients’ responsibility for responding to their system more effectively by using their skills and helps patients develop more realistic expectations of—and more helpful interactions with—their support system. Patients are:

  • expected to become STEPPS experts and to teach their reinforcement team how to respond with the STEPPS “language”
  • encouraged to share what they are learning in group sessions, including relevant handouts
  • given “reinforcement team” cards that explain how team members should respond when the patient contacts them.

The cards also list the skills taught in STEPPS and provide questions for team members to ask when contacted by the participant (ie, “Where are you on the Emotional Intensity Continuum?” “Have you used your notebook?” “What skill can you use in this situation?” “How will you use it?”). The cards provide a common language and consistent interaction between patients and their support systems. Patients are instructed to give the cards to their reinforcement team members when they request their assistance.

After the first 4 to 6 STEPPS sessions, a 2-hour meeting is arranged for reinforcement team members, during which the facilitators describe diagnostic criteria and clinical symptoms of borderline personality disorder and discuss the STEPPS language and format. Team members are taught that their role is to reinforce and support the use of skills taught in STEPPS. They are shown how to use the reinforcement team cards.

Group format

STEPPS consists of 20 consecutive weekly, 2-hour sessions led by 2 therapists (we prefer the term “facilitators”). Sessions take place in a classroom setting and are highly structured, with specific facilitator guidelines for each session.

When they arrive at each session, patients fill out the Borderline Evaluation of Severity Over Time (BEST) scale (Box 2)11,17 and record the results on a graph to measure their progress. Each session has a specific handout, including an agenda, followed by the homework assignment for the next week. Participants read the handout material aloud during the group session and start the homework assignment to be sure they understand it.

Handouts also include poems, essays, drawings, and examples created by previous STEPPS participants; these provide a sense of ownership among participants past, present, and future. Participants are encouraged to share their own writings and drawings, as well as other resources they have found helpful to illustrate the skills being taught.

Skills training. Facilitators introduce a new skill at each session, and each skill builds on previously taught skills. A recurring theme in STEPPS is that “most of the work is done between sessions”—during the week, patients are expected to practice the skill taught at the previous session. Using the STEPPS skills is framed as “change from the outside in.” As patients challenge maladaptive filters and distorted cognitions, they find that negative feelings and dysfunctional behaviors change.

Patients identify their use of specific skills by completing a 5-point Emotional Intensity Continuum (EIC) scale. This abstract concept is made concrete with drawings of pots on a burner. At level 1 (baseline), there is no heat under the burner; at level 5, the pot is boiling over.

Box 2

BEST: A new tool for assessing severity of BPD behaviors

We developed the Borderline Evaluation of Severity Over Time (BEST) to rate severity and change in patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD).11,17 The self-rated scale has 15 items for which patients rate themselves on a 5-point scale; scores can range from 12 to 72.

The BEST shows evidence for good internal consistency and for both face and content validity because the items were constructed to assess behaviors relevant to BPD. We recently assessed the BEST in subjects who had participated in our randomized controlled trials and concluded that the scale is reliable, valid, and sensitive to clinical change as early as week 4.17 To obtain a copy of this scale, contact the authors.

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