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Two people sit on a couch. One has been self-harming and the other is holding her hands discussing how DBT for self-harm could help her manage symptoms.

Here’s How DBT Can Help Treat Self-Harm

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) helps people manage mental health conditions contributing to self-harm. Click here to see more about the benefits of DBT for self-harm.


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Trigger warning: Self-harm, suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.

How DBT treats self-harm

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) treats self-harm by helping people learn healthier ways to cope with their painful emotions and impulses. Through mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills, people are taught how to recognize and manage emotions in a more effective way than self-harming. This can help them reduce their reliance on self-harm as a coping mechanism and ultimately improve their overall well-being. Additionally, DBT therapists help people understand the underlying reasons for their self-harm and provide support in finding alternative ways to address their emotional pain.

Skills taught in DBT for self-harm

Overall, DBT for self-harm teaches a person a wide range of skills to cope with distressing emotions, improve their relationships, and regulate their behaviors. These skills are designed to help a person build a life worth living and reduce their reliance on self-harming behaviors. Skills taught in DBT for self-harm are as follows:


This DBT skill teaches people to be present, observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment, and fully engage with their experiences. It helps people struggling with self-harm learn to regulate their emotions and reduce impulsivity.

Distress tolerance

This DBT skill helps people cope with intense and painful emotions and urges to self-harm without using maladaptive coping techniques. Instead, it teaches people to use distraction, self-soothing, and crisis survival strategies to manage distressing situations.

Emotion regulation

Emotion regulation skills teach people to identify and label their emotions, understand the function of their emotions, and learn how to regulate their emotions in healthy ways. It also helps a person struggling with self-harm decrease emotional dysregulation and increase positive emotional events.

Interpersonal effectiveness

This DBT skill teaches people to assert their needs and boundaries, maintain self-respect in relationships, and communicate effectively. It also helps people to build and maintain healthy relationships and to reduce conflict and stress in their interactions with others.

Benefits of DBT for self-harm

People who have undergone DBT have reported long-term benefits in their ability to manage and cope with self-harm. Through learning skills such as distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and mindfulness, people have found that they are better equipped to navigate difficult emotions and urges in healthy and productive ways. This has resulted in decreased instances of self-harm and improved overall mental well-being for many people.

How quickly does DBT work for self-harm? 

As mentioned, research has shown that for some people, DBT can lead to a decrease in self-harming behaviors relatively quickly. However, it’s important to note that the effectiveness of DBT for managing self-harm can vary from person to person, and results may not be immediate for everyone. It’s important for people seeking help for self-harm to work closely with a qualified therapist to develop coping skills and strategies that work for them.

How is medication used to treat self-harm?

Medication can be used to help manage the underlying mental health issues that may contribute to a person’s self-harming behaviors. For example, antidepressants can be used to help regulate mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Mood stabilizers may also be prescribed to help regulate emotions and prevent impulsive behaviors. Additionally, antipsychotic medications may be used to manage symptoms of psychosis or severe mood disturbances (including conditions like bipolar disorder) that can contribute to self-harm. These medications are often used in combination with therapy and other forms of treatment to provide comprehensive care for a person struggling with self-harming behaviors.

Other types of treatments for self-harm

In addition to DBT and medication, some other types of psychotherapy treatments for self-harm are as follows: 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to self-harm. It helps people develop healthier coping mechanisms and improve problem-solving skills.

Group therapy

Participating in group therapy with other people who struggle with self-harm can provide a sense of community and support. It allows individuals to share their experiences, learn from others, and develop healthy coping strategies in a safe and understanding environment.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

MBSR teaches people how to focus on the present moment and become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It helps people become more accepting of their experiences, reducing the urge to engage in self-harming behaviors.

Intensive outpatient program for self-harm

An intensive outpatient program (IOP) is used to treat the underlying mental health issues that may contribute to a person’s self-harming behaviors when those behaviors are severe. This type of program is typically recommended for people who do not require the level of care provided in a residential facility but still need more support than traditional outpatient therapy. 

IOP typically involves group therapy, individual counseling, and family therapy to help people address the underlying issues that lead to self-harm. The program focuses on teaching people healthy coping skills and strategies to manage emotions, often using modalities such as DBT. This approach allows people to receive comprehensive care while still being able to maintain their daily responsibilities and routines.

Treatment for self-harm at Charlie Health 

If a young person in your life is struggling with self-harm, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with complex mental health conditions, including conditions leading to self-harm. Our expert clinicians incorporate DBT into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing self-harm is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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