It’s always moving and impressive when a prominent person—writer, actor, politician, doctor—shares his or her personal struggle with mental illness. It shows confidence and generosity, and it belies the false stereotype that psychiatric disorders don’t strike people who are talented and accomplished. Today’s New York Times story about Dr. Marsha Linehan, a pioneering behavioral therapist, is remarkable, and important, for several reasons.
Dr. Linehan was a teenager when she experienced severe and inexplicable emotional distress, attacking herself brutally by cutting and burning her body—if weapons were denied her she’d bang her head against the wall. “I was in hell,” she said. “And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.” And she did.
Using the insight gained from her own suffering, she developed what’s called dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. The first step out of hell for her was accepting who she was, despite the despair-inducing gulf between that reality and the person she wanted to be. She calls this “radical acceptance,” and it’s the basis for DBT’s techniques for enabling patients to channel or change the emotions that are driving suicidal urges.
DBT has proven to be a powerful tool, but in a larger sense the most powerful tool is acceptance by a broader public of the reality of psychiatric illness. That’s what enables people who are struggling to get help, and that’s why what Dr. Lineman is doing now—one colleague at the Child Mind Institute called it “coming out”—is so important.