The Stigma of Mental Illness is Losing its Sting

Most of us don’t think twice about going to the dentist if we have a nagging pain in our jaw, or visiting the doctor if a cough persists more than a few weeks. However, when we hurt on the inside, that’s a different story. Emotional pain or depression — and the desire to seek professional support — can bring up feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, or shame. Why? Despite our culture of reality TV and tell-all memoirs, American society still mistakenly treats a mental health “diagnosis” as something to be ashamed of; something that reflects on our character; something to “snap out of.”

Last week, the New York Times ran an article about Marsha Linehan, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which combines cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation with concepts of mindfulness and acceptance, drawn from spiritual traditions. Research indicates DBT is effective in treating Borderline Personality Disorder, a condition in which clients are often actively suicidal and engaged in self-harming behaviors.

In the article, Linehan, a well-respected clinician, revealed for the first time her own history of mental illness, including the fact that she had been hospitalized at the age of 17 for two years. Linehan, a Catholic, also shares that it was a religious experience — not any form of psychotherapy — that transformed her and led her to the path of recovery. She created DBT in order to “develop a therapy that provides the things I needed for so many years and never got.” It makes sense that the woman whose deliverance from suicidal depression came in the form of a numinous encounter with God would go on to develop a form of therapy that blends psychology with spirituality.

This article spoke to me for a couple of reasons. First, I applaud Linehan for sharing the story of her diagnosis and recovery. “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,” says Elyn R. Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Law, (as quoted in the Times article.) Saks chronicles her own struggles with schizophrenia in “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” I hope that as more and more public figures come “out of the closet” about their diagnoses, the stigma surrounding mental health treatment will subside.

Second, I often feel frustrated by the lack of attention paid to spirituality in mainstream psychotherapy. Freud, the godfather of modern psychology, made it no secret that he felt religious beliefs were illusions of the mind. (I imagine there are many clinicians out there today who would probably discount Linehan’s transformation through prayer as a psychotic episode.) During difficult times in my own life, I have benefited just as much from my own spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, as I have from receiving counseling and the support of friends and family. So I am pleased to hear other clinicians come forward to speak about their faith and its role in their mental well-being. That is why I believe so strongly in the work we do at the Pastoral Counseling and Imago Centers of DC: We bring a deep appreciation of our clients’ spiritual traditions as a source of strength in their healing process.