Using DBT to Combat Suicidal Thoughts and Self-Harm for Eating Disorder Patients

During the month of September, mental health organizations all over the country honor National Suicide Prevention Month with an increased focus on education and suicide prevention. In the eating disorder community, an open dialogue about suicide is especially important since suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors or gestures are often present at some point in the “lifetime” of an eating disorder. In fact, in anorexia nervosa, suicide is the second leading cause of death, just after medical complications due to malnutrition.

When considering the link between mental health disorders and suicide, people with an anorexia diagnosis are at a greater risk of suicide than people with almost any other diagnosis. Additionally, research indicates that the rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are often higher for patients diagnosed with bulimia. Studies reveal that non-suicidal self-harm behaviors, like cutting, burning, or skin picking, are associated with eating disorder diagnoses and thus may be linked to an increased risk of suicide.

It is imperative, then, that eating disorder treatment be structured to appropriately address both the eating pathology and any life-threatening behaviors concurrently. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is considered to be the gold-standard treatment for suicidality and self-harm. Columbus Park uses a modification of DBT designed specifically for eating disorders.

Eating Disorder Treatment Using DBT

First developed to treat patients with borderline personality disorder, DBT has since been adapted for the eating disorder population. Relying on a mindfulness-focused therapeutic approach, DBT is built on four main components: individual therapy, group skills training groups, between-session telephone coaching with the therapist, and a team-based approach to treatment. 

DBT-ED is a successful approach to eating disorder treatment for three reasons:

  1. It focuses on emotional regulation and concrete behavioral changes, which closely aligns with the priorities of eating disorder treatment.
  2. The team-based approach provides a much-needed support system for the involved professionals and also offers multiple sources of emotional encouragement for the patient. 
  3. The emphasis on mindfulness skills can be directly applied to the mindful eating practices that are usually a key component of eating disorder treatment.

Using DBT To Help Eating Disorder Patients with Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors

At Columbus Park, we recognize that suicidal ideation and self-injury are notable challenges for eating disorder patients. After an initial assessment and diagnostic questionnaire, we can determine if our DBT-ED model is the right course of treatment. 

Columbus Park’s website has a wealth of educational articles about a wide range of topics, with several comprehensive pieces about DBT in general as well as DBT-ED. We encourage you to peruse them to learn more!  

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to our team at to discuss treatment options, including our comprehensive DBT-ED.