DBT Decreased Suicide Attempts in Bipolar Adolescents


Use of dialectical behavior therapy significantly reduced suicide attempts in adolescents with bipolar disorder, compared with standard of care, based on data from 100 individuals aged 12-18 years.

Bipolar spectrum disorder (BP) is known to substantially increase the risk for suicide in youth, but no psychosocial intervention for this population has targeted suicidal behavior in particular, wrote Tina R. Goldstein, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) had shown effectiveness for decreasing suicide attempts in adults with borderline personality disorder, and previous studies of DBT have shown reduced suicidal ideation, self-harm, and suicide attempts in suicidal adolescents, but these studies have mainly excluded BP teens, the researchers said.

In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers recruited adolescents aged 12-18 years with a diagnosis of BP who were treated at an outpatient clinic between November 2014 and September 2019. Of these, 47 were randomized to 1 year of DBT (a total of 36 sessions) and 53 to standard of care (SOC) psychotherapy. All participants also received medication using a flexible algorithm.

The primary outcomes were suicide attempts over a 1-year period and measurements of mood symptoms and states, specifically depression and hypomania/mania. Secondary analyses included the effect of DBT on individuals with a history of suicide attempt and on improving emotion dysregulation. The mean age of the participants was 16.1 years; 85 were female, and 74% were White.

Participants in both DBT and SOC groups reported similar rates of suicide attempt rates at study enrollment based on the Adolescent Longitudinal Follow-Up Evaluation (ALIFE) with a mean of 2.0 and 1.8 attempts, respectively (P = .80). Based on the Columbia–Suicide Severity Rating Scale Pediatric Version (C-SSRS), participants in the DBT group had slightly more suicide attempts than the SOC group at study enrollment, with a mean of 1.4 and 0.6 attempts, respectively (P = .02).

Controlling for baseline attempts, participants in the DBT group had significantly fewer suicide attempts over the study period, compared with the SOC group as measured by both ALIFE (mean 0.2 vs. 1.1) and C-SSRS (mean 0.04 vs. 0.10, P = .03 for both measures). The incidence rate ratios for reduced suicide attempts were 0.32 for ALIFE and 0.13 for C-SSRS, both significant in favor of DBT, compared with SOC.

Overall, both groups showed similarly significant improvement on measures of mood symptoms and episodes over the study period. The standardized depression rating scale slope was –0.17 and the standardized mania rating scale slope was –0.24.

DBT was significantly more effective than SOC psychotherapy at decreasing suicide attempts over 1 year (ALIFE: incidence rate ratio, 0.32; 95% CI, 0.11-0.96; C-SSRS: IRR, 0.13; 95% CI, 0.02-0.78).

On further analysis, the decrease in suicide attempts in the DBT group was greater over time and among those with a lifetime history of suicide attempts (IRR, 0.23). “Decreased risk of suicide attempt in DBT was mediated by improvement in emotion dysregulation, particularly for those with high baseline emotion dysregulation,” the researchers wrote in their discussion.

The findings were limited by several factors including the mainly female, non-Hispanic White study population, and controlled clinical setting, the researchers noted. Data from a forthcoming community implementation field trial will address some generalizability issues, although more work is needed to address disparities in BP diagnosis and treatment, they added.

However, the results support the potential of DBT for mood management and for reducing suicide attempts in a high-risk adolescent population, especially those with high levels of emotional dysregulation, on par with other established psychosocial treatments, the researchers concluded.

More options needed to manage increased risk

“It was important to conduct this study at this time because, while still relatively rare, bipolar spectrum disorders in adolescents confer increased risk for suicide,” Peter L. Loper Jr., MD, of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, said in an interview. The complexity of BP and the increased risk of suicide in these patients challenge clinicians to identify robust evidence-based interventions beyond pharmacotherapy that mitigate this risk, said Dr. Loper, who is triple board certified in pediatrics, general psychiatry, and child & adolescent psychiatry, but was not involved in the study.

The current study findings were not surprising, because DBT has proven effective in decreasing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in other high-risk adolescent patient populations, Dr. Loper said. “Given the therapeutic content of DBT, with emphasis on mindfulness, distress tolerance, social skills, and emotional regulation, I think it is reasonable to hypothesize that DBT might be a globally applicable intervention, independent of mental health diagnosis or etiology of suicidal ideation,” he said.

The take-home message for clinicians is that the results support the efficacy of DBT as an intervention for adolescents with BP and suicidal ideation, self-injurious behavior, or suicide attempts, said Dr. Loper. For these patients, given their increased suicide risk, “DBT should certainly be recommended as a component of their treatment plan,” he said.

However, barriers to the use of DBT in clinical practice exist, notably access and cost, Dr. Loper noted. “I think that the most prominent barrier in accessing DBT in clinical practice is the availability of certified, structured DBT treatment programs, and particularly those willing to provide services to adolescents,” he said. “Additionally, certified DBT programs, which are the gold standard, are often not covered by third-party payers, making cost yet another potential barrier.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Loper agreed with the study authors that additional research with a more diverse patient population representative of adolescents with bipolar spectrum disorder “is a crucial area of focus.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health through a grant to Dr. Goldstein, who also disclosed royalties from Guilford Press unrelated to the current study. Dr. Loper had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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