Last month, Marsha Linehan, PhD, spoke at Baylor College of Medicine, where she was honored for her significant contributions to the mental health field. Her lecture, “Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Where it started. Where it went. Where it may be now. Where we are going,” could have also been the title of her personal narrative. The lecture took place nearly a year after Linehan came out about her own mental illness.
Linehan is well-known for her development of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as a modality for chronically suicidal individuals. Treaters soon discovered that the therapy could be expanded to treat other severe and complex disorders, including borderline personality disorder.
In 2011, Linehan spoke about her own struggle with mental illness at the very facility where she was first treated as a teenager. At the Institute of Living, a Hartford, CT-based clinic, Linehan entered treatment for her suicidality, self-harm and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Linehan underwent electroshock treatment, a list of psychiatric medications and psychoanalysis, but nothing seemed to help. She spent a lot of time in one of the clinic’s seclusion rooms. By the time she was released three years later, her prognosis was grim.
None of this was known publicly until last year. Since then, a flurry of media attention has been bestowed on the famous founder of one of the mental health community’s most commonly used treatment modalities. In her April lecture, she spoke about her journey to founding DBT and where it might be headed. There were steps and missteps to manualizing the therapy, but through willing participants and government funding, Linehan found a way of reaching those who could not be reached, those whose prognoses were grim.
Knowing more of her personal history gives the long process of fine-tuning DBT more of a basis. Yes, Linehan is persistent. She’s committed to helping others. But since coming out about her mental illness, she has also earned the badge of a wounded healer. The concept of a wounded healer hinges on the therapist’s use of self — many mental health clinicians have silently grappled with their own diagnoses and resolved to help others on their journeys.
It is said that the very concept of the wounded healer is derived from Carl Jung, who had a patient struggling with alcoholism. Jung reportedly told the patient that analysis could not help him with his primary concern of substance abuse, and said the patient’s best bet was a religious or spiritual conversion. That patient became one of the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous, a program designed so that recovered individuals could help others. Years later, Jung acknowledged, “Only the wounded physician heals.”
Challenging the myth
In fact, Linehan said in her Hartford lecture,while she could not be reached in her seclusion room those many decades ago, she “made a vow: When I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.” She joins the ranks of other popular therapists who have come out as wounded healers, including Kay Redfield Jamison, MD, who wrote An Unquiet Mind about her experience with severe bipolar disorder.
Linehan, Jamison and others have attempted to “say no to stigma” by breaking down the myth that mental health clinicians do not suffer from diagnoses, some just as daunting as the ones they deliver to their patients. Each of them had to consider the fact that their level of self-disclosure could affect how they are viewed by colleagues and patients, and yet they each determined it would be relevant and important to show their true selves.
As she finished her recent presentation, Linehan spoke of the significance of being honored for her achievements in the field. She said, “I’m a person who lived with stigma all my life.” From being the wounded to being the healer, Linehan serves as a model for resilience, perseverance and bravery. What would it look like if we all followed her lead?