Adolescent Characteristics that Predict Success of Mindfulness Therapy to Reduce Self-Harm and Suicidality
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
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. It is important to identify the characteristics of adolescents who are most likely to benefit from DBT for the reduction of suicide.
In today’s Research News article “Predictors and moderators of recurring self‐harm in adolescents participating in a comparative treatment trial of psychological interventions.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jcpp.13099), Adrian and colleagues recruited adolescents with previous lifetime suicide attempt, repetitive self‐harm in the past 12 weeks, borderline personality disorder (BPD) characteristics, and clinically significant suicidal ideation. They were randomly assigned to receive 6-months of either Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) or individual/group supportive therapy. They were measured before and after treatment and at the midpoint of treatment for suicide attempts, non-suicidal self-injuries, self-harm, prior self-harm severity, externalizing symptoms, other psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, PTSD symptoms, borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms, adolescent-parent conflict, and emotional dysregulation. In addition, their parents were measured for emotional distress and adolescent-parent conflict.
They found that non-white adolescents had a greater response to treatment than white adolescents in the reduction in suicide ideation. The adolescent’s pre-treatment history also affected the response to treatment with adolescents with greater levels of family conflict, more extensive self‐harm histories, and more externalizing problems having a greater reduction in self-harm. They also found that Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was more effective for adolescents who were high in emotional dysregulation and whose parents had greater psychopathology and emotional dysregulation.
These results are interesting and suggest that certain adolescents are more responsive to treatment than others. Non-white (particularly Latino) youths, adolescents with greater levels of family conflict, more extensive self‐harm histories, more externalizing problems, higher in emotional dysregulation and whose parents had greater psychopathology and emotional dysregulation had more positive changes produced by therapy. These factors may be used to triage which youths would be most likely to benefit from different therapies and thus may potentiate therapeutic benefits.
Suicide is a major problem for adolescents and self-harm, self-injury, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts are all indicators of potential lethal outcomes. So, treatment is extremely important. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) appears to be effective but it is particularly effective for certain youths. Knowing this can help target and refine therapy to improve therapeutic effectiveness in reducing suicides in adolescents.
So, reduce suicidality in certain adolescents with mindfulness.
“Being curious about your suicidal thoughts is another part of mindful observation. If you have the thought, “I should kill myself,” how does it affect the thought’s meaning to then tell yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why I just had the thought that I should kill myself?” – Stacey Freedenthal
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Molly Adrian, Elizabeth McCauley, Michele S. Berk, Joan R. Asarnow, Kathryn Korslund, Claudia Avina, Robert Gallop, Marsha M. Linehan. Predictors and moderators of recurring self‐harm in adolescents participating in a comparative treatment trial of psychological interventions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30 July 2019, 60(10), 1123-1132, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13099
- Adolescent prior self‐harm, externalizing problems, and reported family conflict were significant predictors of change in self‐harm, NSSI, and suicidal ideation, where adolescents with higher family conflict and less severe self‐harm history produced on average more reduction in SH from baseline to post‐treatment.
- DBT produced better rate of improvement compared to IGST for adolescents who were emotionally dysregulation and whose parents had higher baseline emotion dysregulation and psychopathology.
- Clinicians could consider either IGST or DBT for adolescents with self‐harm histories whose parents are well regulated and do not have impairing psychopathology. Adolescents with emotional dysregulation and parents with psychopathology and emotion dysregulation may benefit more from DBT than IGST.
In primary analyses, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was associated with greater reduction in self‐harm during treatment than individual/group supportive therapy (IGST). The objective of this paper was to examine predictors and moderators of treatment outcomes for suicidal adolescents who participated in a randomized controlled trial evaluating DBT and IGST.
Adolescents (N = 173) were included in the intent‐to‐treat sample and randomized to receive 6 months of DBT or IGST. Potential baseline predictors and moderators were identified within four categories: demographics, severity markers, parental psychopathology, and psychosocial variables. Primary outcomes were suicide attempts (SA) and nonsuicidal self‐injury evaluated at baseline, midtreatment (3 months), and end of treatment (6 months) via the Suicide Attempt and Self‐Injury Interview (Psychological Assessment, 18, 2006, 303). For each moderator or predictor, a generalized linear mixed model was conducted to examine main and interactive effects of treatment and the candidate variable on outcomes.
Adolescents with higher family conflict, more extensive self‐harm histories, and more externalizing problems produced on average more reduction on SH frequency from baseline to post‐treatment. Adolescents meeting BPD diagnosis were more likely to have high SH frequency at post‐treatment. Analyses indicated significant moderation effects for emotion dysregulation on NSSI and SH. DBT was associated with better rates of improvement compared to IGST for adolescents with higher baseline emotion dysregulation and those whose parents reported greater psychopathology and emotion dysregulation. A significant moderation effect for ethnicity on SA over the treatment period was observed, where DBT produced better rate of improvement compared to IGST for Hispanic/Latino individuals.
These findings may help to inform salient treatment targets and guide treatment planning. Adolescents that have high levels of family conflict, externalizing problems, and increased level of severity markers demonstrated the most change in self‐harm behaviors over the course of treatment and benefitted from both treatment interventions. Those with higher levels of emotion dysregulation and parent psychopathology may benefit more from the DBT.