July 17, 2011

Marsha Linehan

Renowned American psychologist and researcher Marsha Linehan recently acknowledged that she struggled with borderline personality disorder--a notoriously treatment-resistant disorder characterized by dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, emotional instability, and self-harming or suicidal behaviour--in her adolescence and early adulthood. This is big news: it's not every day that a senior and distinguished psychologist reveals that she suffered from a severe mental illness, particularly one that is as heavy with stigma as is BPD. The story is all the more interesting because researching and treating borderline personality is Dr. Linehan's life work.

According to the New York Times article, as a self-destructive and chronically suicidal teenager, Linehan was hospitalized for symptoms that would meet the current DSM criteria for BPD. Diagnosed instead with schizophrenia, Linehan was treated with Freudian analysis, seclusion, antipsychotics, and electroshock therapy. When she was discharged from the hospital at age 20, the doctors gave Linehan little chance of surviving.

Subsequent to a quasi-religious experience in her 20s, Linehan discovered and embraced the concept of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a Buddhist concept that means accepting on a deep level, without judgment. According to Linehan, she stopped feeling suicidal and began to love herself when she stopped focusing on the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was. Linehan went on to study psychology and used the concept of radical acceptance to form the foundation of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, an effective treatment for BPD. Based on the opposing principles of acceptance and the need to change, DBT succeeded where other treatments for BPD failed.

No matter how you feel about religious epiphanies, Linehan's public exposure of her past is significant. First, her admission offers the hope of a meaningful and fulfilling life to individuals with BPD and other serious mental illnesses. Second, Linehan is lending a famous face to mental illness (à la Margaret Trudeau), showing the public that mental health problems aren't just something that happens to people in movies, psychiatric hospitals, and homeless shelters. Third, that Dr. Linehan's experience suffering from BPD informed the development of one of the first empirically-validated treatments for the disorder collapses the usual divide between the world of academic research and the patients who benefit from the research.

Finally, Dr. Linehan's disclosure demonstrates significant courage. BPD is a diagnosis given primarily to women, and is burdened with more stigma and stereotypes than perhaps any other psychiatric disorder. By admitting to BPD, Linehan has made herself vulnerable to skepticism, sexism, and invalidation. However, I expect that in this case, the disclosure will only more firmly entrench Dr. Linehan as a valued pioneer and significant contributor in the field of psychology.


  1. Are you familiar with other disorders that are considered female dominated? I am wondering specifically about depression.

  2. Depression and most anxiety disorders are more frequently reported by women, but there is the possibility of a reporting bias (i.e., women may be more likely than are men to admit to or seek for such a problem, inflating the statistics), and there's also the possibility that depression and anxiety in men manifest more frequently in less recognizable symptoms, like anger and irritability.

  3. Funny timing.
    Here's another person with BPD that is looking to "become the face of BPD."
    Brandon Marshall of the Miami Dolphins.


  4. OMG. we need to talk asap, I read your post and had an epiphany about something. No joke!