Dialectical behavior therapy for high suicide risk in individuals with borderline personality disorder: a randomized clinical trial and component analysis

JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 May;72(5):475-82. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3039.


Importance: Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is an empirically supported treatment for suicidal individuals. However, DBT consists of multiple components, including individual therapy, skills training, telephone coaching, and a therapist consultation team, and little is known about which components are needed to achieve positive outcomes.

Objective: To evaluate the importance of the skills training component of DBT by comparing skills training plus case management (DBT-S), DBT individual therapy plus activities group (DBT-I), and standard DBT which includes skills training and individual therapy.

Design, setting, and participants: We performed a single-blind randomized clinical trial from April 24, 2004, through January 26, 2010, involving 1 year of treatment and 1 year of follow-up. Participants included 99 women (mean age, 30.3 years; 69 [71%] white) with borderline personality disorder who had at least 2 suicide attempts and/or nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) acts in the last 5 years, an NSSI act or suicide attempt in the 8 weeks before screening, and a suicide attempt in the past year. We used an adaptive randomization procedure to assign participants to each condition. Treatment was delivered from June 3, 2004, through September 29, 2008, in a university-affiliated clinic and community settings by therapists or case managers. Outcomes were evaluated quarterly by blinded assessors. We hypothesized that standard DBT would outperform DBT-S and DBT-I.

Interventions: The study compared standard DBT, DBT-S, and DBT-I. Treatment dose was controlled across conditions, and all treatment providers used the DBT suicide risk assessment and management protocol.

Main outcomes and measures: Frequency and severity of suicide attempts and NSSI episodes.

Results: All treatment conditions resulted in similar improvements in the frequency and severity of suicide attempts, suicide ideation, use of crisis services due to suicidality, and reasons for living. Compared with the DBT-I group, interventions that included skills training resulted in greater improvements in the frequency of NSSI acts (F1,85 = 59.1 [P < .001] for standard DBT and F1,85 = 56.3 [P < .001] for DBT-S) and depression (t399 = 1.8 [P = .03] for standard DBT and t399 = 2.9 [P = .004] for DBT-S) during the treatment year. In addition, anxiety significantly improved during the treatment year in standard DBT (t94 = -3.5 [P < .001]) and DBT-S (t94 = -2.6 [P = .01]), but not in DBT-I. Compared with the DBT-I group, the standard DBT group had lower dropout rates from treatment (8 patients [24%] vs 16 patients [48%] [P = .04]), and patients were less likely to use crisis services in follow-up (ED visits, 1 [3%] vs 3 [13%] [P = .02]; psychiatric hospitalizations, 1 [3%] vs 3 [13%] [P = .03]).

Conclusions and relevance: A variety of DBT interventions with therapists trained in the DBT suicide risk assessment and management protocol are effective for reducing suicide attempts and NSSI episodes. Interventions that include DBT skills training are more effective than DBT without skills training, and standard DBT may be superior in some areas.

Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT00183651.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / prevention & control
  • Behavior Therapy / methods*
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / therapy*
  • Depression / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / prevention & control*
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / psychology
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / therapy
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Single-Blind Method
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide / psychology
  • Suicide Prevention*
  • Suicide, Attempted / prevention & control
  • Treatment Outcome

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00183651