Linehan Admits Struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder: Why It Matters

June 28, 2011 Becky Oberg

Dr. Marsha Linehan, best known for creating dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), admitted in a New York Times article that she struggles with mental illness, once being called "one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital." She would diagnose her troubled teenage self as having borderline personality disorder, or BPD. So why does this matter?

Marsha Linehan BPDThe first reason is the reason Linehan came forward--to give hope to other people with severe suicidal tendencies or severe BPD symptoms. As one of her patients said "One of us. Like us. Because if you were, it would give all of us so much hope." And yes, it is inspiring to know that it is possible to live a "normal" or "successful" life in spite of BPD.

But the second, more important reason is the message it sends to the "normal" people: quit writing us off.

Shattering the Illusion of Justice

The American mental health system is a disaster. I've had some close encounters of the law enforcement kind because of my BPD symptoms--in fact, many argue that the system criminalizes mental illness.

Medical care in the United States requires health insurance and money. If you have no health insurance but have money, prepare to have your life savings wiped out (as happened to me). If you have no health insurance or money, your treatment provider is probably going to be the county jail.

Sometimes, in order to get a psychotic or suicidal person some help, the police will arrest him/her on a minor violation--I know of one case in which the charge was smoking in a no-smoking zone. While this is a short-term fix, it leads to many long-term problems as the person now has an arrest record that will continue to come up. This makes it more likely for the person to be sent to jail instead of treatment.

Jail can also be used as a literal holding cell. According to a 1993 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Public Citizen's Health Research Group, 29 percent of the nation's jails routinely hold individuals with severe mental illness with no criminal charges against them. These are people who are simply waiting for a psychiatric evaluation or an open bed. Jail is often the only place with medical treatment and 24-hour supervision.

It's easy to write people like this off. However, if a professional-class, highly educated woman like Linehan were facing this injustice, can you imagine the outcry? That hits a little closer to home. It practically screams "Mental illness can happen to anyone!" When the Linehans of the world face an injustice like this, we realize with horror that the current mental health system is far from fair.

Dr. Marsha Linehan: A Face of Mental Illness We Can Relate To

For many people, accused Arizona shooter Jared Loughner is the face of mental illness. This makes it easy for society to write people with mental illness off as "crazy", "dangerous", "disturbed", and so forth. This perpetuates myths of mental illness, such as "they're more dangerous" and "they can't be helped". It doesn't matter that Lougher almost certainly refused to seek treatment--in fact, the detention center is forcibly medicating him, according to the Associated Press. It is also ignored that, with proper treatment, we are no more limited than a person with a more visible physical condition.

"There's a tremendous need to implode the myths of mental illness, to put a face on it, to show people that a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life," Elyn R. Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Law who struggles with schizophrenia. "We who struggle with these disorders can lead full, happy, productive lives, if we have the right resources."

When people like Linehan and Saks come forward with their struggles, it educates the public and makes them more willing to have those resources available. Then we see more Linehans and Sakses. Failure to have those resources available creates more Loughners.

Changing the Mental Health System From Within

According to the Times article, Linehan was treated with powerful drugs (including Thorazine), Freudian analysis and electroshock therapy. Nothing changed, and she was placed in seclusion for a lengthy period of time. She vowed that if she ever got out of this hellish existence, she would help others find a way out. So, after her release, she began studying psychology, and volunteering to work with the worst of the worst cases.

Linehan concluded that treatment should be based on facts, not theory. That is why DBT is used to determine which emotion leads to which negative behavior, and break the cycle by teaching new behaviors as a response to those emotions. While DBT does not work for everyone--it didn't for me--it works for many severe cases.

Other therapies, such as schema therapy, have developed as a result of Linehan focusing a Copernican shift of thinking into psychology. Rather than abstract conjecture, therapies like DBT and schema therapy try to identify the emotion and manage an appropriate response. Linehan changed the system from within. Her story gives us hope that we can do the same, regardless of the severity of our BPD symptoms.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2011, June 28). Linehan Admits Struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder: Why It Matters, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Becky Oberg

July, 2 2011 at 5:58 am

I would like to think I'm high-functioning, but I lead a rather oblique life, trying to manage the despair and "no future" thinking that come upon me too often. Marsha Linehan's work has helped tremendously. Because of DBT I've stayed out of the hospital for four years now and can manage symptoms far longer than I could in the past. I hold a master's degree, am a published writer and an emergency medical responder. But I'm really struggling to get some of my life experience -- 20 hospitalizations, ECT, a court commitment, relationship issues, etc., on paper. We who suffer from mental illness can be very accomplished at times, and we have a message for other sufferers as well as the general public. I'm grateful to Marsha Linehan for sharing her story. Please read the link.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
July, 2 2011 at 8:48 am

Thanks for sharing your story. We need more people like you, more high-functioning people who struggle with mental illness willing to admit it. It gives people hope to hear stories like yours and Linehan's.

July, 1 2011 at 6:38 pm

Very interesting. Having heard so much about Linehan through 5 yrs in adolescent DBT, it's a bit... encouraging... that she's accomplished what she has while I assume having suffered what many of us have. Thanks for publishing.

Gigi Marsten
July, 1 2011 at 12:20 am

What an eye-opener! I had no idea Marsha Linehan suffered from the very illness she is trying to help so many others with.
Obviously, Marsha Linehan is very high-functioning in her daily life. So many others are not. God bless her for sharing her story with us and for making a difference.
My youngest daughter is 34 and has BPD - probably since she was 21 or 22. She is a textbook case. When she's not in jail, she is homeless, and has no income. Fortunately, she has a compassionate probation officer (Patti) who recognizes that she has a mental illness, and after a lot of struggle, got my daughter involuntarily admitted to their state psychiatric hospital. Not an easy thing to do.
Sadly, she finally met the "criteria" - which means she was probably a "danger to herself or others". I don't live in the same state anymore, so I pray like crazy. I believe in it. In fact, just before I called her probation officer a day or so ago, I actually signed onto a website where you put your request out there and all the members pray for your concern. After I spoke with Patti (the P.O.), and she told me where my daughter was, I realized that my prayers were answered! I checked the website and the list was several hundred names in length of the people that read my prayer request, and responded.
I'm telling you my story (the short version) because at least those in the mental health community AND the criminal justice system know what is going on (yes, the county jail is used as a "holding cell" who have broken "the law" because they behave inappropriately, have no impulse control, and fly into rages over nothing. It is a tragedy, worldwide! I have read posts in Online Support Groups from Australia, England, as well as the USA.
All we can do is keep it out in the open, and let others know that mental illness can happen to anyone, from any walk of life. Unfortunately, I do not know how to create change. I've never been an activist of any kind, but I love my daughter and will never give up hope!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
July, 2 2011 at 8:45 am

I'm glad to hear the P.O. was understanding--I hope your daughter gets the help she needs. I believe that keeping it out in the open, as you said, is key to sending people to treatment instead of jail. I'm also glad you found some support. I've never been arrested; most of my police encounters ended with involuntary detention (ID). Sadly, criteria for involuntary mental health treatment vary by state, and budget seems to determine a large part of it.
Thank you for sharing your story.

June, 30 2011 at 10:02 am

After studying Schema and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies as approaches to Borderline Personality Disorder...I've found that my clients seem to benefit from approaches grounded in both these therapeutic modalities.
I've found people with BPD to be some of the sweetest, nicest people when stable and I am of the opinion that they have both a Narcissistic element as a response to internalized shame induced and inculcated by childhood emotional trauma and they have a propensity to become immersed in shame as an antithetical element with their Narcissism.
The key is to how they deal with shame, in my opinion.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
July, 2 2011 at 8:41 am

It's good to hear from people researching BPD. We're still very much in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness in general and BPD in particular. It's interesting to see how treatment progresses and what works. I believe therapists are on the front lines when it comes to determining what will be standard treatment--hopefully whatever is the most effective. Keep up the good work!

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