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How do Adolescent DBT Programs Help Depressed and Anxious Teens?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

[seriesbox]DBT Residential Treatment For Teens
Teen DBT Programs Part One: What Is DBT?
Teen DBT Programs Part Two: How DBT Helps Teens
DBT the Gold Standard for Treating Adolescent Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideation
Family DBT at Evolve: How We Do It[/seriesbox]An adolescent DBT program empowers teens to make their own choices and live life on their own terms.

There are several evidence-based therapeutic approaches that can help adolescents manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety and live a life free from major impairment or daily disturbance. Research shows that the most effective treatment for depression and anxiety in teens is the integrated treatment model, which includes a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, community support, lifestyle modifications, experiential therapies, and in some cases, medication.

Experiential therapies include things like exercise, music, journaling, meditation, mindfulness activities, and unique approaches like equine therapy. Lifestyle modifications include establishing healthy eating, sleeping, and activity habits. Community support includes mutual aid groups in various areas where people with depression or anxiety meet to talk, share experiences, and help one another manage their mental health disorder.

Individual and group therapy may include a variety of approaches. The most common of those include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This article is about the latter – DBT – and how adolescent DBT programs can help teens learn the skills that help them grow, mature, and live life on their own terms, rather than those dictated by the diagnosis of a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression.

First, we’ll offer a brief review on the prevalence of anxiety and depression among teenagers in the U.S., which demonstrate the real and pressing need for effective adolescent DBT programs. In 2021 – after an incredibly stressful year like 2020 – our teens need support more than ever.

Adolescent DBT programs can offer that specific, evidence-based, results-oriented treatment and support.

Anxiety and Depression in Teens: Facts and Figures

An excellent resource for all things related to child and adolescent mental health is the Child Mind Institute. They’re a non-profit organization that publishes an annual report called The Children’s Mental Health Report. In 2017, they dedicated their report to adolescent depression and anxiety. We collated the following data from that report and this nationally representative study to offer you the latest reliable information on the prevalence of anxiety and depression in teens in the U.S.

Here are the statistics on teen depression:

Prevalence of Depressive Disorders: Adolescents

  • By Age Group:
    • 13-14: 8.4%
    • 15-16: 12.6%
    • 17-18: 15.4%
  • By Gender (Ag 13-18):
    • Females: 15.9%
    • Males: 7.7%
  • With severe impairment:
    • Female and Male, Age 13-18: 8.7%

Here are the statistics on teen anxiety:

Prevalence of Any Anxiety Disorder: Adolescents

  • By Age Group:
    • 13-14: 31.4%
    • 15-16: 32.1%
    • 17-18: 32.3%
  • By Gender (age 13-18)
    • Female: 38%
    • Males: 26.1%
  • With severe impairment:
    • Female and Male, Age 13-18: 8.3%

The important takeaways from these numbers – for parents, teachers, and anyone involved in the life of a teen – is that with the onset of adolescence, it’s crucial time to pay close attention to any significant behavioral changes. The period between age thirteen and eighteen is when anxiety and depressive disorders begin to appear, particularly in females.

To learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety in teens, please read our article: Teen Stress and Anxiety – Facts and Statistics.

To learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in teens, please read our article: When Should a Parent Seek Professional Help for a Teen with Depression?

Now let’s get to the topic introduced in the title and the introduction to this article: how adolescent DBT programs help teens with anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and Depression Treatment for Teens: The DBT Approach

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the late 1980s. She received training in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but found that CBT wasn’t working effectively for all of her patients. Throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, Linehan and her colleagues codified DBT and created a set of skills and techniques that are in widespread use today.

Over the past thirty years, a wealth of evidence and data derived from peer-reviewed experimental and clinical research has confirmed the effectiveness of DBT. This means DBT skills have been scientifically proven to work in random-controlled trials (RCT) in both academic and community settings since the 1980s.

DBT programs include four core modules that revolve around developing specific skills to help teens manage anxiety and depression.

The Core Skills of DBT

  1. Mindfulness: Increasing awareness and focus in the present moment
  2. Emotion Regulation: Navigating up-and-down emotions
  3. Interpersonal Effectiveness: Managing relationships
  4. Distress tolerance: Tolerating difficult emotions safely, reduce suffering through reality acceptance

These skills are the core pillars of DBT. Therapists use them during individual sessions, group sessions, and one-on-one coaching during crises.

Adolescent DBT programs add a fifth module called Walking the Middle Path, created by Dr. Linehan to meet the specific needs of teenagers. The concept of The Middle Path applies ideas found in mindfulness practices, such as:

  • Accepting the world, without judgment, as it is in the present moment, without trying to change it.
  • Understanding there’s more than one way to see a situation or solve a problem.
  • Validating everyone’s perceptions and experience of a situation or set of circumstances.
  • Validating your own perceptions and experience of a situation or set of circumstances.
  • Believing that change comes through action, and through acceptance, understanding, and validation, you can change how you react both internally (thoughts and feelings) and externally (words and behavior) to your situation and circumstances.

In the words of Dr. Linehan and the countless therapists and clinicians who use DBT in adolescent DBT programs around the world, the goal of the core DBT modules – including the fifth, adolescent-specific Middle Path module – is to help adolescents create “A life worth living.”

DBT In Practice: Empowering Teens

For teens with anxiety or depressive disorders, the ability to create “a life worth living” means, among other things, that they’ve learned practical skills they can use at any time, in any situation, to effectively process and manage the emotions related to their anxiety or depression.

An adolescent DBT program empowers teens to make their own choices and live life on their own terms.

At the beginning of treatment, they learn to recognize and work through the life-interrupting patterns of thought and emotional states related to anxiety and depression without those disruptive states or patterns of thought dominating their day. In some cases, teens in an adolescent DBT program need DBT skills to get through the moment.

Read this article – This One DBT Skill Can Lift Most Teens’ Negative Moods – to learn about a particularly effective DBT skill a teen might learn in an adolescent DBT program that can help them manage a moment of acute distress.

With practice, the DBT skills they learn help them get through a full day without experiencing significant disruption. Over time, a day becomes a week. A week becomes a month. The months add up until teens truly believe in themselves – and believe they’re more than their mental health disorder or their diagnosis. They believe they have the skills to manage the symptoms of their anxiety and/or depression because they prove to themselves over and over again their DBT skills work.

This enables them to live a life of their choosing and focus on their most important job: being a teenager.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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