From The Linehan Institute; DBT: Effective and Evidence-Based
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is officially recognized by the Cochrane Review (Stouffer et al. (2012)) as the treatment of choice for characteristics associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD) including impulsivity, interpersonal problems, emotional dysregulation, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors. These same characteristics distinguish the clients labeled as most “difficult to treat” in our mental health system.
Current research also shows the cost-effectiveness of the DBT model. DBT offers Level 1 (highest level) evidence of efficacy and effectiveness, and is an evidence-based option for treating people with BPD that is likely to meet the objectives of funders, economists, accountants, administrators, providers, and consumers.
And as of this date, eighteen randomized controlled trials published on DBT demonstrate its utility across client groups with severe and complex disorders. There is also an ongoing trial with suicidal adolescents currently underway at the BRTC at the University of Washington in Seattle. Learn more about the DBT data to date.
The National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP, 2012) recently released a summary report of evidence-based treatments and their specific outcomes through 2006. This comparative effectiveness research makes a great resource as you promote DBT and other evidence-based models to your administrators and third party payers.
There is Hope
DBT, as a principle-based treatment, requires the therapist to treat the most important target first using the most up-to-date, researched treatment methods available. DBT also requires that therapists treat each other first in the consultation team. This fosters hope for both client and clinician, dialectically facilitating the hard work both perform in DBT.
There has never been a more exciting time to be part of the DBT community as the data supporting DBT’s use continues to grow.
From The Linehan Institute Behavioral Tech;
What is DBT?
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a cognitive behavioral treatment that was originally developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and it is now recognized as the gold standard psychological treatment for this population. In addition, research has shown that it is effective in treating a wide range of other disorders such as substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.
What are the components of DBT?
In its standard form, there are four components of DBT: skills training group, individual treatment, DBT phone coaching, and consultation team.
DBT skills training group is focused on enhancing clients’ capabilities by teaching them behavioral skills. The group is run like a class where the group leader teaches the skills and assigns homework for clients to practice using the skills in their everyday lives. Groups meet on a weekly basis for approximately 2.5 hours and it takes 24 weeks to get through the full skills curriculum, which is often repeated to create a 1-year program. Briefer schedules that teach only a subset of the skills have also been developed for particular populations and settings.
DBT individual therapy is focused on enhancing client motivation and helping clients to apply the skills to specific challenges and events in their lives. In the standard DBT model, individual therapy takes place once a week for as long as the client is in therapy and runs concurrently with skills groups.
DBT phone coaching is focused on providing clients with in-the-moment coaching on how to use skills to effectively cope with difficult situations that arise in their everyday lives. Clients can call their individual therapist between sessions to receive coaching at the times when they need help the most.
DBT therapist consultation team is intended to be therapy for the therapists and to support DBT providers in their work with people who often have severe, complex, difficult-to-treat disorders. The consultation team is designed to help therapists stay motivated and competent so they can provide the best treatment possible. Teams typically meet weekly and are composed of individual therapists and group leaders who share responsibility for each client’s care.
What skills are taught in DBT?
DBT includes four sets of behavioral skills.
Mindfulness: the practice of being fully aware and present in this one moment
Distress Tolerance: how to tolerate pain in difficult situations, not change it
Interpersonal Effectiveness: how to ask for what you want and say no while maintaining self-respect and relationships with others
Emotion Regulation: how to change emotions that you want to change
There is increasing evidence that DBT skills training alone is a promising intervention for a wide variety of both clinical and nonclinical populations and across settings.
What does “dialectical” mean?
The term “dialectical” means a synthesis or integration of opposites. The primary dialectic within DBT is between the seemingly opposite strategies of acceptance and change. For example, DBT therapists accept clients as they are while also acknowledging that they need to change in order to reach their goals. In addition, all of the skills and strategies taught in DBT are balanced in terms of acceptance and change. For example, the four skills modules include two sets of acceptance-oriented skills (mindfulness and distress tolerance) and two sets of change-oriented skills (emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness).
How does DBT prioritize treatment targets?
Clients who receive DBT typically have multiple problems that require treatment. DBT uses a hierarchy of treatment targets to help the therapist determine the order in which problems should be addressed. The treatment targets in order of priority are:
Life-threatening behaviors: First and foremost, behaviors that could lead to the client’s death are targeted, including all forms of suicidal and non-suicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation, suicide communications, and other behaviors engaged in for the purpose of causing bodily harm.
Therapy-interfering behaviors: This includes any behavior that interferes with the client receiving effective treatment. These behaviors can be on the part of the client and/or the therapist, such as coming late to sessions, cancelling appointments, and being non-collaborative in working towards treatment goals.
Quality of life behaviors: This category includes any other type of behavior that interferes with clients having a reasonable quality of life, such as mental disorders, relationship problems, and financial or housing crises.
Skills acquisition: This refers to the need for clients to learn new skillful behaviors to replace ineffective behaviors and help them achieve their goals.
Within a session, presenting problems are addressed in the above order. For example, if the client is expressing a wish to commit suicide and reports recurrent binge eating, the therapist will target the suicidal behaviors first. The underlying assumption is that DBT will be ineffective if the client is dead or refuses to attend treatment sessions.
What are the stages of treatment in DBT?
DBT is divided into four stages of treatment. Stages are defined by the severity of the client’s behaviors, and therapists work with their clients to reach the goals of each stage in their progress toward having a life that they experience as worth living.
In Stage 1, the client is miserable and their behavior is out of control: they may be trying to kill themselves, self-harming, using drugs and alcohol, and/or engaging in other types of self-destructive behaviors. When clients first start DBT treatment, they often describe their experience of their mental illness as “being in hell.” The goal of Stage 1 is for the client to move from being out of control to achieving behavioral control.
In Stage 2, they’re living a life of quiet desperation: their behavior is under control but they continue to suffer, often due to past trauma and invalidation. Their emotional experience is inhibited. The goal of Stage 2 is to help the client move from a state of quiet desperation to one of full emotional experiencing. This is the stage in which post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be treated.
In Stage 3, the challenge is to learn to live: to define life goals, build self-respect, and find peace and happiness. The goal is that the client leads a life of ordinary happiness and unhappiness.
For some people, a fourth stage is needed: finding a deeper meaning through a spiritual existence. Linehan has posited a Stage 4 specifically for those clients for whom a life of ordinary happiness and unhappiness fails to meet a further goal of spiritual fulfillment or a sense of connectedness of a greater whole. In this stage, the goal of treatment is for the client to move from a sense of incompleteness towards a life that involves an ongoing capacity for experiences of joy and freedom.
How effective is DBT?
Research has shown DBT to be effective in reducing suicidal behavior, non-suicidal self-injury, psychiatric hospitalization, treatment dropout, substance use, anger, and depression and improving social and global functioning. For more information, review of the research on DBT. In this video, DBT Developer and Behavioral Tech founder Dr. Marsha Linehan describes the amazing changes she’s seen in people who have received DBT and gotten out of hell.
Philosophy and Principles of DBT
DBT is based on three philosophical positions. Behavioral science underpins the DBT bio-social model of the development of BPD, as well as the DBT behavioral change strategies and protocols. Zen and contemplative practices underpin DBT mindfulness skills and acceptance practices for both therapists and clients. DBT was the first psychotherapy to incorporate mindfulness as a core component, and the Mindfulness skills in DBT are a behavioral translation of Zen practice. The dialectical synthesis of a “technology” of acceptance with a “technology” of change was what distinguished DBT from the behavioral interventions of the 1970s and 1980s. Dialectics furthermore keeps the entire treatment focused on a synthesis of opposites, primarily on acceptance and change, but also on the whole as well as the parts, and maintains an emphasis on flexibility, movement, speed, and flow in the treatment.
True to dialectics, DBT strategies are designed in pairs representing acceptance (validation, reciprocal communication, environmental intervention on behalf of the client) and change (problem solving, irreverence, consultation-to-the-patients about how they can change their own environment). Strategies are further divided into procedures; a set of principles guides the selection of strategies and procedures depending on the needs of the individual client. Clients are also taught a series of behavioral skills designed to promote both acceptance and change. A focus on replacing dysfunctional behaviors with skillful behaviors is woven throughout DBT.
DBT is a principle-based treatment that includes protocols. As a principle-based treatment, DBT is quite flexible due to its modular construction. Not only are strategies and procedures individualized, but various aspects of the treatment, such as disorder-specific protocols, can be included or withdrawn from the treatment as needed. To guide therapists in individualizing priorities for targeting disorders and behavioral problems, DBT incorporates a concept of levels of disorder (based on severity, risk, disability, pervasiveness, and complexity) that in turn guides stages of treatment and provides a hierarchy of what to treat when for a particular patient. In contrast, skills training is protocol based. Once a skills curriculum is determined, what is taught in a session is guided by the curriculum, not by the needs of a single client during that session.
In the late 1970s, Marsha M. Linehan attempted to apply standard Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to the problems of adult women with histories of chronic suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, and non-suicidal injury. Trained as a behaviorist, she was interested in treating these and other discrete behaviors. Through consultation with colleagues, however, she concluded that she was treating women who met criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In the late 1970s, CBT had gained prominence as an effective psychotherapy for a range of serious problems. Dr. Linehan was keenly interested in investigating whether or not it would prove helpful for individuals whose suicidality was in response to extremely painful problems. As she and her research team applied standard CBT, they encountered numerous problems with its use. Three were particularly troublesome:
Clients receiving CBT found the unrelenting focus on change inherent to CBT to be invalidating. Clients responded by withdrawing from treatment, by becoming angry, or by vacillating between the two. This resulted in a high drop-out rate. If clients do not attend treatment, they cannot benefit from treatment.
Clients unintentionally positively reinforced their therapists for ineffective treatment while punishing their therapists for effective therapy. For example, the research team noticed through its review of taped sessions that therapists would “back off” pushing for change of behavior when the client’s response was one of anger, emotional withdrawal, shame, or threats of self-harm. Similarly, clients would reward the therapist with interpersonal warmth or engagement if the therapist allowed them to change the topic of the session from one they did not want to discuss to one they did want to discuss.
The sheer volume and severity of problems presented by clients made it impossible to use the standard CBT format. Individual therapists simply did not have time to both address the problems presented by clients (suicide attempts, self-harm, urges to quit treatment, noncompliance with homework assignments, untreated depression, anxiety disorders, and more) and have session time devoted to helping the client learn and apply more adaptive skills.
In response to these key problems with standard CBT, Linehan and her research team made significant modifications to standard CBT.
They added acceptance-based or validation strategies to the change-based strategies of CBT. Adding these communicated to the clients that they were both acceptable as they were and that their behaviors, including those that were self-harming, made real sense in some way. Further, therapists learned to highlight for clients when their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were “perfectly normal,” helping clients discover that they had sound judgment and that they were capable of learning how and when to trust themselves. The new emphasis on acceptance did not occur to the exclusion of the emphasis on change: clients must change if they want to build a life worth living.
In the course of weaving in acceptance with change, Linehan noticed that another set of strategies – dialectics – came into play. Dialectical strategies give the therapist a means to balance acceptance and change in each session. They also serve to prevent both therapist and client from becoming stuck in the rigid thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can occur when emotions run high, as they often do in the treatment of clients diagnosed with BPD. Dialectical strategies and a dialectical world view, with its emphasis on holism and synthesis, enable the therapist to blend acceptance and change in a manner that results in movement, speed, and flow in individual sessions and across the entire treatment. This counters the tendency, found in treatment with clients diagnosed with BPD, to become entrenched in arguments and polarizing or extreme positions.
Significant changes were also made to the structure of treatment in order to solve the problems encountered in the application of standard CBT.
In her original treatment manual, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (1993), Linehan hypothesizes that any comprehensive psychotherapy must meet five critical functions. The therapy must:
Enhance and maintain the client’s motivation to change
Enhance the client’s capabilities
Ensure that the client’s new capabilities are generalized to all relevant environments
Enhance the therapist’s motivation to treat clients while also enhancing the therapist’s capabilities
Structure the environment so that treatment can take place
As already described, the structure of DBT includes four components: skills group, individual treatment, DBT phone coaching, and consultation team. These components meet the five critical functions of a comprehensive psychotherapy in the following ways:
It is typically the individual therapist who maintains the client’s motivation for treatment, since the individual therapist is the most prominent individual working with the client.
Skills are acquired and strengthened, and generalized through the combination of skills groups and homework assignments.
Clients capabilities are generalized through phone coaching (clients are instructed to call therapists for coaching prior to engaging in self harm), in vivo coaching, and homework assignments.
Therapists’ capabilities are enhanced and burnout is prevented through weekly consultation team meetings. The consultation team helps the therapist stay balanced in his or her approach to the client, while supporting and cheerleading the therapist in applying effective interventions.
The environment can be structured in a variety of ways. For example, the home environment could be structured by the client and therapist meeting with family members to ensure that the client is not being reinforced for maladaptive behaviors or punished for effective behaviors in the home.