Several months ago, while reading a 2011 New York Times story by Benedict Carey about Dr. Marsha M. Linehan’s arduous and extraordinary transformation from patient to doctor, I thought of her as a rock star of mental health. Little did I know Carey would be the recipient of the Linehan 10,000 Gold Stars Award at the annual Linehan Institute Award Benefit at the Midtown Loft on May 20, and I would be there, too. Co-hosted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, the annual event raises funds for the advancement of mental health education, compassion and research. It had been almost two years since my mother told me about Dr. Linehan and her life- and mind-saving Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) techniques that helped my mother get a better grasp of her life. When it came time to research Dr. Linehan for a press release I’d write about Brookhaven Retreat being the Platinum Sponsor for the upcoming awards dinner, I recalled her name and her purpose. Carey’s piece made me sure I had to meet her.
Considering all Dr. Linehan has been through and achieved, including being institutionalized as a young adult, I wasn’t sure what kind of personality to expect. She’s a PhD, a professor of psychology and adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington.
When I introduced myself as a new writer for Brookhaven Retreat, Dr. Linehan immediately asked what I wrote about. I shared a little and let her know I had a piece of art for her--- created by my mother: two overlapping circles representing three states of mind (the reasonable mind and the emotional mind integrating to create the wise mind), an element of DBT developed by Dr. Linehan. To my surprise, she was warm as she could be. Her calming presence seemed to say, it’s OK to be whoever and whatever you happen to be. She said she loved the art piece and insisted we pose for a picture of her holding it.
Her journey reminds me of the book “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” wherein author Clarissa Pinkola Estes states, “There is a saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. This means the interior teacher surfaces when the soul, not the ego, is ready. This teacher comes whenever the soul calls---and thank goodness, for the ego is never fully ready.”
I am in awe of Dr. Linehan, whose teacher surfaced just in time to save her from becoming another horrifying statistic during her troubled youth. Thereafter she “rocked” the world of mental illness by adding her DBT methods to its body of literature. She became a star who dedicates her work to saving others whose suffering and torment she experienced first-hand.
Every 13 minutes there is one death by suicide in the United States. Worldwide, 800,000 people commit suicide every year, 90 percent of whom have a diagnosable mental illness. By any measure, these numbers are staggering. But the use of DBT has cut the number of suicides in half and decreased hospital stays by 80 percent.
Chatting was one thing, but hearing Dr. Linehan introduce and speak about the award winners was quite another. Mental illness and suicide are touchy topics to begin with, but Dr. Linehan’s casual manner was especially moving and engaging. The Linehan Clinical Science Award was presented to Minnesota Department of Human Services Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for their passion in the treatment of DBT.
Arthur Evans, of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, won The Courageous Heart Award for demonstrating commitment to learning about and providing DBT to the highest standards. Choking on tears isn’t good for you. Of course, you can say that about choking on anything, but stifling a cry is the act of strangling emotions, stopping the natural flow of the body’s fluids and energy. All bad! Every time I cry I like to think of it as my demons being released into the breeze rather than remaining trapped and left to wreak havoc in my body. However, there’s a time and a place for everything, though I realized much of the room was either holding it back or letting it flow.
Dr. Linehan herself shed a few tears at one point at the podium when she seemed to lose her train of thought, which I found endearing. “I’m 72,” she said, while begging the audience’s pardon. “I’m embarrassed because this has never happened to me in public.”
There was dead silence until she quickly continued and laughed it off saying, “OK, I’m back.” Then---tension-melting applause.
Although once upon a time she kept mum about her personal past so not to diminish her work in the field, Dr. Linehan should be proud to be both teacher and student, and wear her own brilliant star like one of the 10,000 Gold Stars she joyously gives others.