You are here

A Gift for Saving Lives

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Tucked between newer, larger buildings in Seattle’s University District, the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics (BRTC) is easy to overlook. But inside the clinic, miracles happen. Lives are saved.

BRTC therapists treat individuals at high risk for suicide and people with other disorders including borderline personality disorder. They use dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), developed in the 1980s by Marsha Linehan, BRTC director and UW professor of psychology. The therapy has proven remarkably effective, reducing suicide attempts by 50 percent and emergency room visits by 80 percent. DBT is now used widely, both in the U.S. and abroad.  

BRTC faculty, staff, and students

"We feel our best move is to help our students treat some of the most difficult individuals they will ever encounter," says Katie Korslund, second from right in this photo of BRTC faculty, staff, and students. Media credit: Elaine Franks

“Most of the people we deal with have attempted to shut down their emotions in maladaptive ways, such as attempting suicide and using drugs, including heroin and alcohol,” explains Linehan. “The treatment helps individuals build a life worth living by targeting the exact behaviors that need to change.”

Through a mix of individual and group therapy, clients learn to manage their emotions without harming themselves. Each week they attend a one-on-one session with a therapist and a group session in which they learn mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance skills. They also consult with their therapist by phone when a problem behavior is about to occur, even if it’s at 2 a.m. The therapist helps them use their newly acquired skills to address the problem.

“Skills matter,” says BRTC associate director Kathryn Korslund (BA, French, BS, Psychology, 1995; postdoctoral fellow, 2001-2003). “These skills consistently show an impact on regulating out-of-control behavior. For our clients, that gives the hope of being able to build and sustain a satisfying life.” 

The treatment helps individuals build a life worth living by targeting the exact behaviors that need to change.

Every BRTC client is also a research subject, because only through ongoing research can the clinic learn how to deliver DBT most effectively. The clinic provides training for graduate students as well, preparing them to treat adults and adolescents at very high risk for suicide. At present, about a dozen Department of Psychology doctoral and postdoctoral students work with BRTC clients, always under the close supervision of a DBT expert. Supervisors are available even when students get those 2 a.m. phone calls from clients. “We can’t expect students to take this on if they can’t be confident,” says Korslund.

Robbi Senderov with her daughter Malika.

Robbi Senderov with her daughter Malika.

By the time students complete their training, they have faced some of the most challenging cases they may ever see, and they are prepared. The clinic staff makes sure of that by choosing clients carefully. “The BRTC training model has always been that we want our graduate students to have the hardest of the hard, the toughest of the tough, including patients who have been kicked out of hospitals or other clinics,” says Korslund. “Most people in the community have never learned how to adequately treat suicidal people, so we feel our best move is to help our students treat some of the most difficult individuals they will ever encounter and do that where we can back them with expert supervision.”

All of this takes money, which has been an ongoing challenge. Only Linehan is supported by the UW; the rest of the clinic’s expenses are funded through grants and private support. A generous gift from Roberta Senderov will go a long way toward supporting the clinic’s work.

Senderov named the gift the Malika Kane Buckosky Memorial Fund for BRTC to honor her daughter Malika, who suffered from borderline personality disorder and briefly participated in dialectical behavior therapy at a clinic in Colorado. “The most positive time for Malika and me in more than 15 years of navigating her mental illness was, without a doubt, when she received DBT,” says Senderov. “During this time Malika began to communicate with me, she could talk about and process how she felt, and we started to rebuild a connection.

Marsha Linehan

Marsha Linehan, professor of psychology and director of the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, developed dialectical behavior therapy. The treatment is now used widely. Media credit: Elaine Franks

Unfortunately Malika discontinued her therapy and took her own life at age 22.  “I’ve thought about what may have been different if Malika had been properly diagnosed earlier on, received DBT sooner, or remained in DBT longer,” says Senderov. “I know DBT could have been life changing for us if Malika had continued receiving treatment, and I believe it can be life saving for others with similar illness or self-harm and suicidal tendencies. The skills are helpful for parents as well. That is why I support the imperative work of Marsha Linehan and her team.”

Senderov researched DBT before making the gift. Though the therapy is offered widely, she wanted to support the program responsible for DBT, which led her to Linehan. Senderov later discovered that Linehan not only developed DBT but also understood Malika’s pain better than most, having struggled with suicidal tendencies herself earlier in life. “At a young age, I vowed to get myself out of hell and then go back and get others out,” Linehan has said of her early struggles.

Linehan has done so tirelessly, saving many lives along the way. The treatment she developed has since been adopted in 35 countries, and has proven effective for a wide range of behavior disorders including eating disorders, addiction, anxiety-related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

“We’re making huge changes in people’s lives,” says Korslund, who has worked with Linehan for 15 years. “DBT doesn’t just makes lives survivable; it helps people find real joy and value in living. To me, that is pretty darn exciting.”

.  .  .

Support the Malika Kane Buckosky Memorial Fund for BRTC