Reduce Suicide with Mindfulness

Reduce Suicide with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


The pain of depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.
The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.” – William Styron


After cancer and heart disease, suicide accounts for more years of life lost than any other cause. Around 43,000 people take their own lives each year in the US. Someone dies from suicide every 12.3 minutes. Worldwide over 800,000 people die by suicide every year. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). It is much more prevalent with males who account for 79% of suicides. The problem is far worse than these statistics suggest as it has been estimated that for every completed suicide there were 12 unsuccessful attempts. In other words, about a half a million people in the U.S. attempt suicide each year. Yet compared with other life-threatening conditions there has been scant research on how to identify potential suicide attempters, intervene, and reduce suicidality.


Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce suicidality. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a mindfulness-based therapy targeted at changing the problem behaviors including self-injury and suicide. Behavior change is accomplished through focusing on changing the thoughts and emotions that precede problem behaviors, as well as by solving the problems faced by individuals that contribute to problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In DBT five core skills are practiced; mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, the middle path, and interpersonal effectiveness. Hence it makes sense to further study the ability of DBT to reduce suicides in adolescents.


In today’s Research News article “Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adolescents at High Risk for Suicide: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, McCauley and colleagues recruited adolescents (12-18 years of age) with at least one suicide attempt, elevated suicide ideation, a history of self-harm, and symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). They were randomly assigned to receive 6 months of individualized group therapy either of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) or individual and group non-directive supportive therapy. They were measured before, midway and after treatment and 3 and 6 months later for suicides, suicide ideation, self-harm, mood, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), substance abuse, and externalizing symptoms.


They found that in comparison to individual and group non-directive supportive therapy, the participants in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) attended more sessions, remained in treatment longer, and had higher completing rates. Importantly, after treatment, the group receiving Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) had significantly fewer suicide attempts, less self-harm, and significantly higher rates of clinical change.


These are important results that suggests that Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an effective treatment for adolescents with a history of suicide attempts and self-harm. Since compliance and completion rates were high, it suggests that the treatment was acceptable to the youths. The fact that DBT was compared to another therapy is important as it demonstrates that participant expectancy effects or placebo effects cannot account for the findings. They are also important as they suggest that DBT may help save adolescent lives in a very vulnerable population or at the very least help to relieve their suffering.


So, reduce suicide with mindfulness.


“In general, the practice of mindfulness involves observing your thoughts without buying into them. You label your thoughts as just that – thoughts. Not necessarily truth. Not necessarily a call to action. If you have the thought, “I should kill myself,” you can then observe, “I just had the thought that I should kill myself.” – Stephanie Freedenthal


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


McCauley, E., Berk, M. S., Asarnow, J. R., Adrian, M., Cohen, J., Korslund, K., … Linehan, M. M. (2018). Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adolescents at High Risk for Suicide: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA psychiatry, 75(8), 777–785. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.1109


Key Points


Is dialectical behavior therapy more effective than individual and group supportive therapy in reducing suicide attempts and nonsuicidal self-injury in suicidal adolescents?


This multisite randomized clinical trial of 173 adolescents indicated a significant advantage for dialectical behavior therapy compared with individual and group supportive therapy for reducing repeat suicide attempts, nonsuicidal self-injury, and total self-harm after treatment. Although the dialectical behavior therapy advantage weakened over time, secondary analyses indicated that youths receiving dialectical behavior therapy were more likely to respond to treatment, indexed by the absence of any self-harm, after treatment and at 12-month follow-up.


Dialectical behavior therapy is effective for reducing repeat suicide attempts among highly suicidal adolescents, underscoring the value of dialectical behavior therapy in suicide prevention initiatives.



Suicide is a leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-old individuals in the United States; evidence on effective treatment for adolescents who engage in suicidal and self-harm behaviors is limited.


To evaluate the efficacy of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) compared with individual and group supportive therapy (IGST) for reducing suicide attempts, nonsuicidal self-injury, and overall self-harm among high-risk youths.

Design, Setting, and Participants

This randomized clinical trial was conducted from January 1, 2012, through August 31, 2014, at 4 academic medical centers. A total of 173 participants (pool of 195; 22 withdrew or were excluded) 12 to 18 years of age with a prior lifetime suicide attempt (≥3 prior self-harm episodes, suicidal ideation, or emotional dysregulation) were studied. Adaptive randomization balanced participants across conditions within sites based on age, number of prior suicide attempts, and psychotropic medication use. Participants were followed up for 1 year.


Study participants were randomly assigned to DBT or IGST. Treatment duration was 6 months. Both groups had weekly individual and group psychotherapy, therapist consultation meetings, and parent contact as needed.

Main Outcomes and Measures

A priori planned outcomes were suicide attempts, nonsuicidal self-injury, and total self-harm assessed using the Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Interview.


A total of 173 adolescents (163 [94.8%] female and 97 [56.4%] white; mean [SD] age, 14.89 [1.47] years) were studied. Significant advantages were found for DBT on all primary outcomes after treatment: suicide attempts (65 [90.3%] of 72 receiving DBT vs 51 [78.9%] of 65 receiving IGST with no suicide attempts; odds ratio [OR], 0.30; 95% CI, 0.10-0.91), nonsuicidal self-injury (41 [56.9%] of 72 receiving DBT vs 26 [40.0%] of 65 receiving IGST with no self-injury; OR, 0.32; 95% CI, 0.13-0.70), and self-harm (39 [54.2%] of 72 receiving DBT vs 24 [36.9%] of 65 receiving IGST with no self-harm; OR, 0.33; 95% CI, 0.14-0.78). Rates of self-harm decreased through 1-year follow-up. The advantage of DBT decreased, with no statistically significant between-group differences from 6 to 12 months (OR, 0.65; 95% CI, 0.12-3.36; P = .61). Treatment completion rates were higher for DBT (75.6%) than for IGST (55.2%), but pattern-mixture models indicated that this difference did not informatively affect outcomes.

Conclusions and Relevance

The results of this trial support the efficacy of DBT for reducing self-harm and suicide attempts in highly suicidal self-harming adolescents. On the basis of the criteria of 2 independent trials supporting efficacy, results support DBT as the first well-established, empirically supported treatment for decreasing repeated suicide attempts and self-harm in youths.


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