On the Potential for Iatrogenic Effects of Psychiatric Crisis Services: The Example of Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adult Women With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Objective: Although previous research has suggested that people with a history of using psychiatric crisis services are at higher risk for suicide, it is unclear whether this link is attributable to individual risk factors or iatrogenic effects of service utilization. We examined this question by analyzing data from a randomized controlled trial of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a treatment for highly suicidal individuals in which patients took advantage of crisis services less than those in the comparison condition. We hypothesized that crisis-service utilization during a treatment year, rather than pretreatment indicators of suicide risk, would be associated with higher suicide risk after treatment, and that DBT’s treatment effects would be partially attributable to this association. Method: Participants were 101 women (Mage = 29.3, 87% Caucasian) with recent suicidal and self-injurious behaviors meeting Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.; DSM–IV; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994) criteria for borderline personality disorder. We examined relationships between suicidal ideation (using the Suicide Behaviors Questionnaire; Linehan, 1981), number of suicide attempts (using the Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Interview; Linehan, Comtois, Brown, Heard, & Wagner, 2006), and number of psychiatric inpatient admissions and psychiatric emergency-room (ER) visits (using the Treatment History Interview; Linehan & Heard, 1987) from the years prior to, during, and following treatment. Results: Treatment-year psychiatric ER visits were the sole predictor of the number of follow-up year suicide attempts. Treatment condition and pretreatment inpatient admissions predicted treatment-year psychiatric ER visits. Finally, there was evidence that DBT resulted in fewer suicide attempts at follow-up, in part because getting DBT led to fewer psychiatric ER visits. Conclusion: In this population and context, data suggest that crisis-service utilization conveys risk for suicide. DBT may reduce suicide risk in part by reducing use of these services.

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