By Mandi White-Ajmani
University of Washington
APS Fellow Marsha Linehan is a Professor of Psychology and adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. She is also Director of the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, a consortium of research projects developing new treatments and evaluating their efficacy for severely disordered, multi-diagnostic, and suicidal populations. Her primary research is in the application of behavioral models to suicidal behaviors, drug abuse, and borderline personality disorder. She is also working to develop effective models for transferring science-based treatments to the clinical community.
Linehan is the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) a treatment originally developed for the treatment of suicidal behaviors and since expanded to treatment of borderline personality disorder and other severe and complex mental disorders, particularly those that involve serious emotion dysregulation. She is also founder of Behavioral Tech Research, Inc., a company that develops innovative online and mobile technologies to disseminate science-based behavioral treatments for mental disorders.
She has received several awards recognizing her clinical and research contributions to the study and treatment of suicidal behaviors, including the Louis I. Dublin Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Suicide, the Distinguished Research in Suicide Award (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention), and the creation of the Marsha Linehan Award for Outstanding Research in the Treatment of Suicidal Behavior established by the American Association of Suicidology. She has also been recognized for her clinical research including the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, the award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Clinical Psychology (Society of Clinical Psychology,) and awards for Distinguished Contributions to the Practice of Psychology (American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology) and for Distinguished Contributions for Clinical Activities (Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy).
APSSC:What led you to choose psychology as a career?
M.L.:After giving up the idea of being a theologian, I went for pre-med and applied to medical schools. My aim was to be a psychiatrist in a state hospital where I thought I could help the people most in need of help. Shortly after applying for medical schools, I realized that there did not appear to be any data that mental health treatments of the day — this was 1967 — were helpful. I suddenly realized that if this were true, I would spend my life trying to help mental patients but failing at it. So I decided I should become a researcher and develop treatments that worked. I then realized that training in psychology is training in research, and medical schools do not focus on training researchers. So I withdrew my applications to medical school and applied to graduate schools in psychology.
APSSC:How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?
M.L.:I always wanted to help the most miserable people in the world, and, at the start of my career, I was convinced that people who want to die must be the most miserable. So, I decided to focus my career on suicide. After reading the first book on suicide, I was completely hooked on the topic. How and why people choose either death or life was intrinsically interesting, and, even now, it is one of the few topics in psychology I can read just for pleasure. I became a behavior therapist when I found that changing attitudes did not change behavior (which was a terrible shock to me). I ultimately got funded to test my ideas on treating suicide. I had been trained in behavior modification, and, frankly, it never occurred to me that behavior therapy would not reduce suicidal behavior. So, to be sure I could show that my treatment was effective, I decided to get subjects who attempted suicide a lot so I could show that I could get them to attempt less often. I called inpatient hospitals and said, more or less, “send me your worst.” But then my treatment blew up: The patients were always mad at me, went mute, walked out, or attacked me. I had never heard of borderline personality disorder, but it turned out that was the disorder I was working with. So, I started modifying the treatment, and, over the years, dialectical behavior therapy emerged — synthesizing radical acceptance on the one side with change on the other side. Bringing into behavior therapy a focus on acceptance of and by the client was the catalyst for the term dialectical. Learning acceptance myself so I could teach it to clients sent me into almost 30 years of Zen training with a Benedictine monk who is a Zen master. That experience transformed me and my life. Teaching my graduate students and fellows to treat high-risk suicide patients and to love the most difficult to treat individuals has been a joy in my life. I have perhaps had less sleep but much satisfaction.
APSSC:What suggestions do you have for choosing an area of study within a field as large and diverse as psychology?
M.L.:Follow your passion and do what you are good at.
APSSC:How did you go about selecting a graduate program?