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Professor to research personality disorders

Emily Schrank | Friday, February 25, 2011

Psychology Professor Lee Anna Clark was recently awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. The funds will go toward a five-year study to change the way personality disorders are diagnosed.

Clark said the project is looking to bridge the gap between personality order identification and designation.

“The bottom line for the grant is to gather information that might allow us to build a better system,” Clark said. “There is a mismatch between the way personality disorders are diagnosed and the way they are defined and we want to see if we can bring those into better alignment.”

The current diagnostic system uses a certain set of criteria for each personality disorder, Clark said.

“It’s proven to be a pretty good measure of personality traits in abnormal range,” she said. “But it’s not perfect and we need to figure out what other traits are necessary.”

Clark said the core dysfunction of a personality disorder is an impairment in a person’s sense of self and their ability to relate to other people.

“Our personalities are designed to help us function in the world,” she said. “When that personality system doesn’t develop or function properly, that’s a personality disorder.”

Clark said one of the main goals of the study is to determine a complete, comprehensive set of personality traits to be used in diagnosing personality disorders.

“We want to understand more about the notion of personality functioning, which is a relatively new concept,” she said. “We want to see how we can better measure that coherent sense of self.”

Clark said the first two phases of the study involve conducting interviews and gathering data from patients at the Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, a local nonprofit mental health agency.

The second phase of the study will take three years, Clark said.

“We’ll interview a total of 600 participants and also talk to others who know them well,” she said. “The belief about people with personality disorders is that they don’t have good insight into their own personalities, so they need to get another perspective.”

The third and final stage of the study will test the system developed based on the information gathered from the previous two phases, Clark said.

“We ultimately want to be able to assess and diagnosis personality disorders using the traits that define them,” she said.