Helping teens create a life worth living | YES

Teens often turn to self-harming behaviors to cope with difficult and painful emotions. Average statistics indicate that one-in-12 teens deliberately cut or harm themselves.

Without help, these self-harming behaviors can be life-threatening and can lead to death. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Washington state for youth 10-24 years old and the third leading cause of death nationally.

With help, teens can create a life worth living.

What is self-harming behavior? Self-harm is the act of hurting oneself on purpose. It is often seen in the form of cutting, burning (self-mutilation), hair-pulling and using mood-altering substances.

Why do teens choose to self-harm? It’s a way to cope. Teens who choose self-harm are already feeling vulnerable for a variety of different reasons. Some of these reasons include bullying, puberty, social media and other mental health issues.

What often happens is that teens experience intense emotions and suffering and look for ways to make these painful feelings go away. It is in those moments when teens’ suffering is so great that they turn to self-harm: it distracts them from the emotional pain they are going through.

Sometimes, self-harm can be the only control a teen feels in the midst of painful and difficult emotions and circumstances. It’s also a cry for help.

How do I help my child who is self-harming, preoccupied with suicide or struggling with mental health issues? These are very serious concerns that few parents are equipped to deal with effectively and it’s often best to seek professional help immediately. If your child is not willing to go to therapy, seek support for yourself or your family.

Current trends in therapy show an increase in the effectiveness of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as a treatment for life-threatening and self-harming behaviors. DBT has also been effective with teens who are struggling with depression, anxiety, anger, impulse control and behavioral issues besides self-harm.

What is DBT? DBT is a form of therapy created by Marsha M. Linehan, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington, to treat chronically suicidal individuals and people with borderline personality disorder. Over the years its effect has grown to treat a variety of other issues, including eating disorders, traumatic brain injuries and self-harming/suicidal teens.

DBT has proven to help reduce self-harm, suicide attempts, substance abuse and other mental health and behavioral problems. When compared to standard treatment, a small but growing number of DBT studies have shown dramatically lower rates of self-harm, suicidal ideation and hospitalizations.

What is the DBT treatment process? At Youth Eastside Services, DBT treatment includes individual and skills group therapy. The skills group, which meets once a week for 90 minutes, consists of six to eight teens and two group leaders.

Individual therapy with a DBT trained therapist is focused on helping teens integrate the skills they are learning in group, as well as address other issues they are struggling with. “It’s about learning skills to reduce suffering and create a life worth living,” says Michael Keegan, DBT coordinator for YES. “Kids walk out feeling supported and validated and look forward to the next session.”

Teens who have tried other forms of treatment have successfully healed through DBT. “A new client came to me after being released from the hospital for suicidal ideation,” Keegan relates.

“She had been in therapy for several years. Within just one year of both group and individual DBT therapy, she made amazing changes in her life. She has had no further hospitalizations and is looking forward to college later this year.”

Youth Eastside Services recently expanded to offer two DBT skills programs: one for substance abuse and the other for mental health. Each group consists of a 16-week curriculum which covers four areas: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness.

To learn more about DBT, please contact Youth Eastside Services at 425-747-4937 or go to youtheastsideservices.org.

Patti Skelton-McGougan is the executive director of Youth Eastside Services.

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