Dialectical Behavior Therapy Provides Hope for College Students

College counseling centers (CCCs) are designed to provide immediate therapeutic services to college students in distress. Young adults who enter college are more vulnerable to mental health problems than their peers due to the additional stress they experience when they enter a university. Moving away from home, experiencing independence and isolation, and academic fears all contribute to the psychological stress that many students face. Rates of depression and borderline personality (BPD) are extremely high among college students. Likewise, college students often engage in nonsuicidal self-injurious (NSSI) behaviors such as cutting and burning in order to cope with the additional mental strain. For some students, suicidal ideation and even suicide attempts become their only way to cope. The importance of providing adequate and effective treatment to these students cannot be understated.

Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of therapy that is designed to address these urgent needs in individuals with significant mental health challenges. DBT has been shown to radically reduce symptoms in a brief period of time and can decrease the risk of hospitalization and further psychological decline. Several factors make DBT an ideal approach for college students. First, it incorporates teaching and learning, which is a readily accepted approach in a student population. Second, it can be delivered by clinicians in training, which lowers the cost and increases accessibility. Finally, DBT is malleable and can be shaped to fit the needs of each individual student.

In an effort to compare the effectiveness of DBT to treatment as usual (TAU) among a student population, Jacqueline Pistorello of the Counseling Services Department at the University of Nevada recently led a study that evaluated the outcome of 63 students being treated for depression, suicidal ideation, NSSI, or BPD. The students received either DBT or TAU over the school year and were assessed at the end of their treatment and again every 3 months posttreatment for a year and half. The results revealed that the DBT group had significantly sharper decreases in symptom severity than the TAU group. The adherence to treatment and maintenance of gains was also stronger in the DBT group. Pistorello believes these findings provide promise to underfunded and overburdened college campuses. She said, “This finding suggests that DBT may be a particularly effective and safe treatment for severely distressed clients being treated in the CCC context.”


Pistorello, J., Fruzzetti, A. E., MacLane, C., Gallop, R., Iverson, K. M. (2012). Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) applied to college students: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029096

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  • June


    July 11th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    This sounds so promising as a method of treatment for many people who suffer and not just for the college aged student. But is there any indication that DBT is more effective with a younger population or is this something that could find more widely accepted use in the general population as a whole?



    July 11th, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    As a college student this is great news.There are so many times when it feels like there is nowhere to go and even friends cannot really understand things.Professional help coupled with a proven technique can be a big boon to all of us college students.

  • sonia cobb

    sonia cobb

    July 11th, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    This could be just the thing for amny college students who need that kind of flexibility, they already have so many rigid classes in their lives but this offers them something new and different.

    I also suggest that perhaps this kind of treatment would not be as intimidating as what they may perceive that more tradtional therapy practices would be. It may allow them to have a voice in how the plan is progressing so that they can instantly feel a part of their therapy sessions and gains that they are making.

  • naomi hodge

    naomi hodge

    July 11th, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    interesting piece of news.it is just so important to provide support to those in college as just the absence of such support could result in these young people not seeking help and a downward spiral could follow.

    and what they can do to further improve this is encourage the habit of seeing the on-campus professional regularly,and especially so with the freshmen.they are the ones that need it the most.

  • Bryan


    July 12th, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    oooh college students, you have such a hard time
    Grow up! Get a life!

    We all have it tough and would love to access to the “treatment as usual” that so many of you have access to and choose to make little of it.

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