Two weeks ago, a groundbreaking article landed on the front page of The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/health/23lives.html?_r=1. Dr. Marsha Linehan, beacon of Dialectic Behavior Therapy, revealed her own struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder. Finally, someone who is a major player in the mental health field (other than Kay Redfield Jamison), admitted she too had an issue with a disease she helps others to manage. I hope Linehan's example causes a ripple of honesty throughout the industry.
One of the most surprising things in my year-long book promotion/mental health awareness tour is the barrier to honesty for medical and mental health professionals. Physicians have confided in me that if they admitted to using antidepressants, their clinical privileges at hospitals might be revoked. Hospitals, focused on reducing malpractice suits, don't want a lawyer pointing to an antidepressant and accusing the hospital of negligence. With no delineation between mental illness in remission/under control and the disease in full force, medical practitioners sometimes omit taking medication that might make them more functional. No wonder the rate of suicide is almost twice as high among physicians than for the standard population.
Psychologists, supposedly the cheerleaders of openness, often suffer from the same level of secrecy. A presenting psychologist at a conference I recently attended pulled me aside and whispered "I attempted (suicide) too, when I was 16 years old. But don't tell anyone; it will ruin my career." I was stunned. How do we expect people to be open about their issues if the "healers" in charge can't do the same?
In my experience as a patient with mental illness, the most powerful experience of healing came not from the practioners who were perfect, but those who could envision me as a whole person. If a practioner pretends to have perfect mental health (because, really, who does?), the relationship shifts from two individuals solving a problem to the asymmetry of the infallible expert and the incompetent pawn. The reality is that no one is fully infallible or incompetent. For the most effective healing, both contribute.
Dr. Rachel Namoi Remen writes about the difference between service and fixing:
"I have served people impeccably with parts of myself that embarrass me, parts of which I am ashamed. The wholeness in me serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in me is as worthy as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals. . . When we serve, we see the unborn wholeness in others; we collaborate with it and strengthen it."
I'm not suggesting that mental health practioners dump their personal experience on patients. There's a difference between dumping and living by example. Through her honesty and life, Linehan proves that wholeness does not require a flawless mind. In Linehan's case, her flaws have given hope for those with a form of mental illness that is often written off as a lost cause. Linehan knows better. She sees them as whole.
For more information about Struck by Living or Julie Hersh's speaking engagements go to www.struckbyliving.com