How Effective Is Dialectical Behavior Therapy in Treating Mental Illness?

dialectical behavior therapy

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that dialectical behavior therapy is one of the most effective therapies in use for patients with mood disorders, borderline personality disorders, and other illnesses that may be affecting their life. The problem is, however, that most people do not understand what the treatment is, how it works, or for whom it is best suited. Here is a quick introduction to the efficacy of this treatment for mental disorder patients.

Original Use

DBT was originally developed to treat individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder, or BPD. It is an evidence-based treatment that was designed by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s and combines talk therapy with group sessions aimed at developing emotional and behavioral management skills. It is heavily influenced by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but is notable in one area: DBT encourages the recognition and validation of uncomfortable feelings or behaviors. The therapy works on the basis that by accepting what is uncomfortable, an individual can move on to make different choices than the ones previously made.

Additional Uses

Since the 1980s and the success in treating BPD, DBT has gone on to serve as the primary form of therapy for a number of other mental illnesses and disorders. This can include post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, mood disorders, and even eating and substance abuse disorders. Research also indicates that DBT may even be used as a secondary form of therapy for patients who have spectrum mood disorders as well as sexual abuse survivors because it validates all thoughts and behaviors within the confines of therapy. While there is some controversy surrounding DBT’s use for other mood disorders, general research from unbiased professionals proves that it is an effective therapy.


DBT works by creating a therapy plan that includes both personal talk therapy sessions and group sessions. While personal therapy sessions can take place once or even several times a week, group sessions generally are held once, and at most two, times a week. Group sessions often teach individuals mindfulness techniques, distress tolerance and other skills that may regulate harmful behaviors or thought processes. This form of therapy can often last a year or more, although improvement in an individual is often reported as early as six months.

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A paper from the National Institutes of Health shows that DBT has been proven to be one of the most effective treatments for BPD in the field. However, at the time of the study, which was published in 2018, the therapy’s efficacy for other mental disorders was not as widely known. Other studies have shown that DBT is incredibly useful as either the primary or secondary form of treatment for individuals who have concurrent mental disorders, including BPD. Another mental disorder that may be improved with DBT is dissociative identity disorder; however, it is rare that DBT would be the primary therapy. It is important to note that as an evidence-based treatment, DBT is very effective in curbing suicidal behavior, self-harm, anger, depression, and psychiatric hospitalization; it may also improve social interactions and overall general function within society.

Individuals with mood disorders, BPD, or even post-traumatic stress disorder have all benefited from DBT. However, it is important to note that therapy is only helpful when an individual continues treatment; the benefits from therapy diminish over time and those who cease treatment may see their disorder develop over time and may cause critical issues in the future. While dialectical behavior therapy is not the answer to every mental illness, it has more than proven its efficacy over the 30 years it has been used by professionals in the field.


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