LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A University of Washington psychology professor who developed a therapy to treat chronically suicidal patients and extended its power to help people with borderline personality and other disorders has won the 2017 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
Marsha Linehan, director of UW’s Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, Center for Behavioral Technology, was selected for the 17th prize.
Her award-winning idea is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which balances acceptance and commitment to change in treating mental illness, distinguishing it from previous standard interventions. Research has shown DBT to be effective for conditions previously considered untreatable, such as borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by impulsivity, interpersonal problems and self-destructive urges.
“At a young age, I vowed to get myself out of hell and then to go back and get others out,” said Linehan, who acknowledged publicly in 2011 her own longtime struggle with high suicidality and behaviors similar to those found in borderline personality disorder.
She sought out difficult-to-treat, suicidal individuals and developed by trial and error an effective intervention, which ultimately led to treatment for multiple disorders. She drew on her professional expertise and on her training as a spiritual director and Zen Master to develop an approach that taught patients how to regulate dysfunctional behaviors and build lives they experienced as worth living.
The therapy also relies on a toolkit of behavioral skills, including mindfulness practices such as wise mind, non-judgmental stance, and being present in the moment and fully aware. Linehan is considered a key figure in introducing such practices into mainstream psychotherapy.
“In addition to being considered the state-of-the-art treatment for chronically suicidal individuals, dialectical behavior therapy has been found to be effective for other behavioral disorders, including eating disorders, addiction, anxiety related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression,” said Professor Woody Petry, award director.
Linehan, a UW faculty member since 1977, has published seven books, including an influential DBT book and treatment manual translated into 10 languages. She has received numerous prestigious awards in the mental illness and suicide prevention fields. She founded The Linehan Institute, a nonprofit mental health organization; Behavioral Tech LLC, a training and consulting organization; and Behavioral Tech Research Inc., a company that develops online and mobile treatment technologies.
All 2017 Grawemeyer Award winners were announced this week, pending formal approval by the university’s board of trustees. UofL presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education and gives a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their $100,000 prizes.