Are mental health professionals in it for themselves?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on June 28, 2011 · 3 comments

in stigma

We’ve all heard the truism about mental health professionals: They go into training in mental health looking for solutions to their own problems. As a psychologist, I’ve always felt a little offended by this stereotype, even while acknowledging its unsettling kernel of truth.

Psychologist and patient

Marsha Linehan, PhD

Now Dr. Marsha Linehan shows us that, far from being cause for shame, this is something one might actually feel good about. Linehan is the iconic creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive-behavior therapy that has revolutionized the treatment of borderline personality disorder and suicidal behavior.

DBT challenges patients to approach therapy as a balancing act between learning better ways of coping with stress and trauma while working equally hard at accepting oneself and one’s situation exactly as they are. Not only did she introduce this innovation to the clinical community, she proved through rigorous research that it really works.

When, through the years, I have heard fellow professionals smugly whisper, “You know, there’s a reason why Linehan understands borderlines so well,” I’ve never known quite what to say. Now, as a result of a remarkable act of self-disclosure, the answer emerges: The rumors are true – get over it.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Linehan for the first time publicly discusses her own mental health history. More than two years in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1960s. Multiple suicide attempts and acts of self-harm that left her arms a “macramé of faded burns, cuts and welts.” Medical treatments that included high doses of antipsychotic medications and two courses of electroconvulsive therapy. All before the age of 21.

Her explanation for making this disclosure at age 69, after achieving success in the mental health arena equaled by only a handful of other professionals?

“I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.”

Coward? As if it weren’t enough to emerge from her hellish past, not only to survive, not only to thrive, but to show the way to recovery to countless other sufferers, she now presents herself as proof that there is hope, even from one in such dire straits that her own care providers saw little hope for her.

In good company

Dr. Jamison's classic memoir.

Linehan is not alone as a mental health professional in revealing her own demons as a means of giving hope to others. World-class bipolar disorder researcher Dr. Kay Jamison did so in poetic fashion in An Unquiet Mind, as did York University psychologist Norman Endler in Holiday of Darkness.

Such acts of courage go far, not only toward destigmatizing mental illness for the public, but also toward showing all of us that mental health professionals are not perfect and need not present themselves as paragons of mental health. Indeed, it is in dealing with our own demons that we become most human and perhaps better able to connect with those we seek to serve.

Editor’s note: For another post about Dr. Linehan, check out “Renowned psychologist acknowledges personal struggle with mental illness.”

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December 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Ellis July 15, 2011 at 9:37 am

Thanks, Sandra, for your comment. I think you may have missed my point but, in the process, made a more profound one. I merely wanted to praise Linehan for her extraordinary act of courage. It’s not cool in many circles for mental health professionals to acknowledge that they themselves have struggled with psychological and behavioral issues, and disclosures such as Linehan’s help get us down off the pedestal and back to human being status where we belong. Your comment, as I understand it, adds the important point that human suffering is not for naught, but enriches theory and research when the sufferer brings her own experience to bear in her quest to relieve suffering in others.

Sandra July 13, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I think that what Linehan’s coming out has revealed isn’t merely that she’s “not perfect” (who is?) but that her lived experience of BPD gave her insights into its treatment needs that may not have been possible otherwise. It’s important to value the knowledge gained from lived experience, and unique benefits of peer support, instead of labelling her as imperfect. That’s the stigma she sought to avoid for so long. In my view, having had BPD makes her more perfect in her role.

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