This was the headline in The New York Times on June 23, 2011 when Marsha M. Linehan, famous as the creator of a treatment used worldwide for severely suicidal people, disclosed her own history of mental illness.
Why did she tell something so personal?
Dr. Linehan explains: “So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought – well, I have to do this. I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.” When she was 17 (in 1961) Marsha was admitted to the Institute of Living and placed in the seclusion room the hospital saved for its most suicidal patients. There, deprived of anything with which she could burn or cut herself, she did the only thing left to her and endlessly banged her head against the wall and on the floor.
Looking back, Dr. Linehan explains: “My whole experience of these episodes was that someone else was doing it; it was like ‘I know this is coming, I’m out of control, somebody help me; where are you, God? … I felt totally empty, like the Tin Man; I had no way to communicate what was going on, no way to understand it.”
Dr. Linehan went on to earn her Ph.D. in psychology. Following a religious experience, she figured out that the answer to her mental illness lay in the radical acceptance of herself and her world.
“I decided to get supersuicidal people, the very worst cases, because I figured these are the most miserable people in the world – they think they’re evil, that they’re bad, bad, bad – and I understood that they weren’t … I understood their suffering because I’d been there, in hell, with no idea how to get out.”
The people she chose to treat were diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis she would have given to her younger self. Borderline Personality Disorder describes a group of people who share neediness, outbursts and self-destructive urges, often leading to cutting and burning. In therapy, borderline patients can be terrors – manipulative, hostile, sometimes ominously mute, and notorious for storming out threatening suicide.
Dr. Linehan developed the treatment known as D.B.T., Dialectal Behavioural Therapy. She realized it would have to include day-to-day skills. People have to learn to change their behaviours. Today, her treatment is used widely. Those borderline patients who attend weekly sessions have been found to make far fewer suicide attempts.
Thank you Marsha Linehan for sharing your own story of your struggles. Thank you, too, for using your own experience to benefit so many others.