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Michael Hogan to give fourth annual Dudley Allen Sargent Distinguished Lecture, Wednesday, October 16, Sargent College, 5 p.m.
Week of 11 October 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 7

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Beating her own mental illness
Sargent student hopes to share rehab experience

By David J. Craig

Lyn Legere remembers vividly the winter day in 1984 when her advisor at a mental health day treatment program in Boston refused to support her plan to become a paralegal. Legere, who has several psychiatric disorders stemming from sexual and mental abuse she suffered as a child, was living in a homeless shelter at the time.

Lyn Legere (SAR’04) says working toward a master’s degree at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has been instrumental in her own recovery from mental illness. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
  Lyn Legere (SAR’04) says working toward a master’s degree at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has been instrumental in her own recovery from mental illness. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

“He said I wasn’t ready for that kind of challenge and that I should wait a year or two,” she says. “And I remember seeing two paths in front of me -- I could go back to school or kill myself. It was that simple, because I knew I couldn’t stay in that situation for another year, feeling that kind of despair.”

Against her advisor’s recommendation, Legere entered a paralegal program, secured student aid, and eventually finished second in her class. She considers herself lucky to have managed it: there have been plenty of times in her 49 years, she says, when she would have collapsed in the face of such discouragement.

“For most of my life I’ve been surrounded by feelings that my life had no purpose,” says Legere (SAR’04), now a graduate student at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “And clinicians who played dream regulator by telling me what I could and couldn’t achieve did me no good. Those who helped me gave me hope, rather than yanking it out from under me.”

Not a chance
It is easy to understand why therapists might underestimate Legere. Addicted to drugs and alcohol at age 13, she has been in and out of mental institutions since she was a teenager and has attempted suicide dozens of times -- a “poor communication strategy,” she admits wryly. She has been diagnosed with, among other things, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, conditions widely believed to be irreversible, although recent research indicates otherwise (see below).

Her bulky clinical file is sharply at odds with the intelligent, socially astute persona she presents when she is doing well. Smiling easily, she speaks with wisdom about her psychiatric problems and has a fresh sense of humor, casually quipping about her time “in the nuthouse” and poking fun at herself for having a blocked-out memory of a lengthy period following a botched electroshock treatment: “A friend mentioned us seeing Elton John in concert, and I was like, ‘We saw Elton John? Damn it! I wish I could remember that!’”

Legere has had on-again, off-again success at ordering her life since leaving her severely abusive suburban Massachusetts home at age 17. She kicked drugs that year and earned a bachelor’s degree in music at UMass-Boston, although she continued to cling desperately to alcohol until she was 28. After becoming sober in 1981, she held responsible jobs for periods as long as a year or two, including a paralegal position helping people secure Social Security benefits.

But all the while, Legere remained prone to long, devastating breakdowns. Clinicians, true to convention, tended to prescribe treatments -- mainly medication -- aimed only at stabilizing her symptoms, she says, rather than offering her tools to actually improve her life.

“I think the borderline personality disorder diagnosis was a death sentence,” she says. “I would walk through a therapist’s door and he or she would have decided already that I wasn’t going to get better. That was certainly the message I always got.”

Better late
That changed in 1995, when Legere began treatment with a therapist at the Trauma Center at Arbor-HRI Hospital in Allston, Mass. “My therapist didn’t accept that I was beyond hope,” Legere says. “And she told me that while she would be there to help me, the responsibility for my recovery was mine. That’s when my recovery took the biggest turn in my life. All of a sudden I felt I had been given this great power.”

Legere’s progress has been far from seamless since working with the Arbor-HRI therapist, whom she still sees regularly. In 1998, after the death of her brother, she suffered her worst breakdown ever -- losing her job, home, and possessions, and against her therapist’s recommendation, enduring shock therapy sessions that stripped her of her identity and her ability to remember people and places for almost a year.

Even after the breakdown, she says, her therapist was encouraging, referring her to Sargent College’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation to do volunteer work. The center, which operates on the premise that given the right support people with mental illness can reclaim their lives, provides training in life and work skills. Legere, who at the time had never heard of psychiatric rehabilitation, was deeply moved by the center’s mission.

Today, back on her feet and living in Brighton, she is working toward a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Sargent and is determined to work at an institution such as the Sargent center. She would like to train clients, as well as other mental health professionals, in rehabilitation techniques. Knowing “there are no guarantees” regarding her own health, she sometimes worries that she may suffer another crash, but her dedication to furthering the cause of psychiatric rehabilitation, she says, has given her life a new focus.

“It breaks my heart a little bit that in all the years I was struggling, no one told me recovery was possible,” she says. “Rehabilitation is such a great complement to traditional treatment, but it seems to exist in this little cocoon outside of the medical establishment, and I want to do my part to get the word out about these types of services.

“I’ve always felt that if I could somehow use my experience in a positive way, it would make it not quite so bad,” she continues. “I can’t tell you how much I love the work I’m doing here.”

A recovering profession
A vast majority of mental-health-care providers cling to the notion that serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are strictly degenerative, according to Courtenay Harding, a SAR professor of rehabilitation counseling, but recent research has shown that people with such illnesses can reclaim their lives given the proper resources.

“Schizophrenia is a prolonged, but not a chronic disorder,” says Harding, who directs BU’s Institute for the Study of Human Resilience. “People tend to be very sick at the onset, but the symptoms taper off gradually.”

Rehabilitation programs that teach schizophrenic patients how to manage their own symptoms and medications and teach job skills, social skills, and simple tasks such as balancing a checkbook improve patients’ self-esteem and help reduce symptoms, Harding says.

BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, founded in 1979, was one of the first centers in the nation to research recovery from mental illness. One of the center’s current initiatives is a supported education program that provides such training to about 100 people a year in computers, healthy living practices, and life skills. The goal is to prepare adults with mental illness to attend college or to get a job. The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health has adopted the concept, and with BU’s help, has created similar programs across the state over the past 10 years.

“The idea that people with serious psychiatric disabilities should be encouraged to make decisions about their life was literally unheard of when the center was founded,” says William Anthony, a SAR professor of rehabilitation counseling and executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. “Instead, clinicians tended to tell patients what to do and to try to control and direct their actions. Now we realize the importance of helping people with psychiatric disabilities to take charge of their own lives.”

For more information about the Institute for the Study of Human Resilience, visit bu.edu/resilience/. For more information about the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, visit bu.edu/cpr.


11 October 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations