Renowned psychologist acknowledges personal struggle with mental illness

by Anne W. Lupton on June 24, 2011 · 1 comment

in stigma

University of Washington faculty member Marsha Linehan, PhD

The New York Times really knows how to get folks excited. Ever since it published an article yesterday about Marsha Linehan, PhD, a renowned psychologist and researcher, in which she acknowledged her own mental illness, it seems like no one’s talking about much else around here.

And with good reason. While I’m not clinician, I’ve worked at Menninger long enough to know that Dr. Linehan is an influential figure in the mental health field. She’s been lauded far and wide for her work developing dialectical behavior therapy and for her work with some of the most severely ill patients, including those who have attempted suicide. Now that she’s publicly sharing her own history of mental illness, I think it’s likely her influence will expand still further.

No one is immune

Yes, there have been other clinicians who have discussed or written about their own struggles – Kay Redfield Jamison is the first to come to mind – but it still seems like there should be more, especially since the statistics – 1 in 4 adults suffer from a mental illness in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health – surely apply to that group as well as to the rest of us.

I  hope more clinicians will follow her example and cop to being, as the Times quotes one of her patients, “one of us” because that simple, yet courageous decision could well have a significant impact on the stigma that has long haunted those with mental illness. Yes, I know that things are better with regard to stigma than they were 20 years or so ago, but you have to admit that we still have quite a ways to go before stigma is a relic of the past, like rotary phones, VCRs and dinosaurs.

Breaking boundaries

I also wonder what such an admission might mean for the dynamic between patient and therapist. Maintaining boundaries is a big deal when it comes to treatment, as it should be. A therapy session is probably one of the few places where someone can and should say, “It’s all about me.” That’s a sacred time and place in which someone who’s stuggling can focus on their own story, from how it got written to how to change it for the better.

Does a therapist’s revelation of a personal struggle with mental illness change that dynamic? It seems to me that it would have to because the patient is now getting to see beyond the professional aspect of the therapist and into the personal.

I can imagine some clinicians might say that’s a taboo that shouldn’t be broken, but I can also see that it might actually help the healing process. I mean, wouldn’t hearing about a therapist’s personal experiences inspire hope in a patient? Wouldn’t a patient feel a stronger connection with his clinician and might that make for a safer therapeutic environment? Might it not even lead a patient to make greater use of his time in therapy?

Given the play the article has gotten across the Internet, it’s clear Dr. Linehan’s revelation has struck a powerful chord. I, for one, was thrilled to see someone of her stature be so honest and revealing, and I hope she will  be lauded as much for her courage in going public as she has been for her considerable therapeutic and research accomplishments.

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