ServiceNet’s DBT Program Offers Vital Treatment Option to Young People at Risk for Suicide  

September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a vital opportunity to reduce taboos and increase awareness around suicide prevention—especially among our youth population, who represent some of the most at-risk demographics in the nation.  

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2020, while suicide was the twelfth leading cause of death overall in the United States, it was the second leading cause of death among individuals ages 10-14 and 25-34 and the third leading cause of death among individuals ages 15-24.   

Many factors contribute to suicide risk, but one therapy that has shown strong results for adolescents and adults with behaviors associated with certain risk factors is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a cognitive behavioral therapy developed in the 1980s for people with borderline personality disorder. Still considered one of the most effective treatments for borderline personality disorder, DBT has also been shown to be beneficial to participants with bipolar disorder, substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and other self-harming behaviors. 

In DBT, participants manage difficult emotions and decrease conflict in their lives through progressive skill building in mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. The full protocol of DBT typically runs for 6-12 months and includes individual and group therapy sessions and phone coaching with a therapist as needed.  

Evidence-based modifications of adult DBT have also been developed to specifically help adolescents, with a recent 2018 study showing that DBT led to sharper drops in suicide attempts and self-harm among adolescents than more generalized therapy. 

“In adolescent DBT, we start by building skills in distress tolerance because we want to first and foremost ensure their safety and stability,” said Bonnie Atkins, Coordinator of ServiceNet’s adolescent DBT program. “We want to help them learn how to get through a moment of distress without making it worse or engaging in life-threatening behavior, helping them tolerate what they feel long enough to use a skill and eventually learn how to self-regulate.”   

The adolescent DBT program also offers family group sessions where at least one caregiver is present. These groups not only support the adolescent through their treatment but also teach DBT skills to caregivers, helping them learn to regulate their own emotions as well.  

“If you have a suicidal teenager, or a teenager in clear distress, you are likely feeling deep terror,” Atkins said. “This family group is also about helping parents learn enough skills to stabilize themselves so they can use coping strategies and help support their child.”  

For adolescents who may not need the full protocol of DBT but could benefit from the skills training, ServiceNet’s adolescent DBT program also offers a group therapy option, Wise Mind. The adult DBT program also provides an Emerging Adult group program for young adults who are aging out of the adolescent DBT programs but still need support. 

With Lady Gaga talking about her own experiences with DBT, plus a recent mention on the Disney + show She-Hulk, and an article in the New York Times, the recognition of DBT only continues to grow. One of the major hurdles with the current DBT adolescent program is meeting this growing need and making it accessible through community mental health programs such as ServiceNet.  

Atkins urges new clinicians to consider going into community mental health DBT as a vibrant area where one can make a significant difference. “DBT is a collaborative, team treatment and also a complete framework that can be applied in various settings and in many ways, making it a strong foundation for any clinician,” Atkins said. “I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t practice some DBT in my life.”  

Atkins and Daniel Millman, the coordinator for ServiceNet’s adult DBT program, will facilitate a DBT training program for clinicians on November 10. Those interested in registering for the event should contact [email protected] or [email protected] for more information. 

Atkins does urge people to understand that DBT is not a cure-all. The most important thing any caregiver or peer can do, first and foremost, is listen to and take adolescents seriously.  

“Sometimes parents or caregivers refer to children expressing any suicidal thoughts as kids just wanting to just get attention,” Atkins said. “But any suicidal thought is absolutely significant. Period. Reach out, get assessments, find a provider, talk to your regular doctor. We know they are all inundated right now, but it’s important to take this seriously and find support.”  

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or is at immediate risk, call or text 9-8-8 to reach the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. 

Learn more about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide.  

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