NRO readers might typically look askance, display agnosticism or even militant unbelief, when the topic of psychology enters the discussion. One peer-reviewed academic study noted that 95 percent of articles in psychological journals lean to the political left. Many psychologists work on the public dime — through government grants received or positions held at agencies and hospitals. There’s a view that psychologists espouse non-traditional values, make money off human suffering, string out the length of treatment to keep the money flowing in, and speak in generalities so vague that these phrases would be out of place even in a political speech.
Yet often unrecognized are the psychologists who work, not with the “worried well” (á la Freud), but with those whose lives are at risk because of crippling and incapacitating psychological problems. These include eating disorders, substance abuse, and inclinations to suicide and self-destruction — the latter often classified as having “borderline personality disorder.” Many clinical psychologists avoid working with persons who display these profound problems: The most common lawsuit against psychologists occurs when a client commits suicide, so from a business point of view it may be prudent to avoid these vexing human problems.
Marsha Linehan — a psychologist who specializes in all of the problems just noted — was awarded the Gold Medal for Life Achievement in the Application of Psychology last week at the 120th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Orlando, Fla. Linehan is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Washington. The citation states:
Marsha M. Linehan is the driving force behind the development of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), noted as one of the 100 most important discoveries by Time magazine. Her text on the treatment is the most-cited work in the field of mental health in the past 25 years. What began as a treatment primarily for suicidal and self-injurious behaviors has expanded to many other areas, including addictive and eating disorders, depression, and family conflict. It is now being studied and applied as a skills-based curriculum in classrooms with school-age children. She has received multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health to study DBT, which has demonstrated in multiple international investigations.
The story behind the story of Linehan’s scientific work was profiled in a New York Times article on June 23, 2011: “Marsha Linehan arrived at the Institute of Living on March 9, 1961, at age 17, and quickly became the sole occupant of the seclusion room on the unit known as Thompson Two, for the most severely ill patients. The staff saw no alternative: The girl attacked herself habitually, burning her wrists with cigarettes, slashing her arms, her legs, her midsection, using any sharp object she could get her hands on.” At the age of 68, she decided to reveal her own personal struggles which inspired her to help others avoid the “living hell” she had experienced as an adolescent. I have written more about her life and work here.
From a scientific and economic view, Linehan has empirically demonstrated how outpatient therapy can provide a cost-effective alternative to inpatient hospitalization. This model of psychology is increasingly needed in an era of expanding medical costs, and for this among other things, we should be ever grateful for her contributions.
— William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research at American Mental Health Foundation, in New York City.