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It was 1979, and Michael Hollander, PhD, was a post-doctoral fellow at McLean’s adolescent day service when he overheard two girls talking about how they regularly burned their arms with lighters and red-hot coins.
He was curious and joined the conversation. “What surprised me was that they didn’t talk about the pain but instead about the relief they experienced—that it made them feel better and calmed them,” recounted Hollander. In those days, self-injury wasn’t well understood, and so began a lifelong interest in why and how teens hurt themselves.
Forty years later, Hollander, director of training at the 3East continuum at McLean, is one of the nation’s top experts in borderline personality disorder (BPD) and one of its signature behaviors: self-injury.
With abundant support from Joseph Gold, MD, chief of the Simches Center of Excellence in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and chief medical officer; psychologist Cynthia Kaplan, PhD; and Philip G. Levendusky, PhD, ABPP, senior vice president, Business Development and Communications, Hollander, his wife, Janna Hobbs, LICSW, and psychiatrist Blaise Aguirre, MD, founded the 3East continuum at McLean. Today, 3East is a nationally renowned constellation of programs for young people with BPD.
In addition to engaging in self-injury, patients with BPD struggle with emotional volatility. Relationships, including with therapists, can be fraught, so clinicians are often reluctant to take these patients. From the beginning, Hollander gravitated toward them, admiring their spirit, intensity, and passion.
As a salute to Hollander’s impact on the lives of young people and their families, Stephen and Ruth Palmer made a $1 million gift to establish the 3East Endowed Director Fund, with Hollander as its first incumbent.
“For those of us who know Michael, it goes without saying that his positive impact on young lives has been without measure,” said Stephen Palmer. “For those who don’t, we know the world will be a better place as the reach of his work widens.”
“The problems Michael helps families address are often not susceptible to a direct fix with a family’s financial resources, sacrifices, and supremely best efforts,” added Ruth. “But, with Michael and his team acting as a catalyst and agents of change, solutions can be and often are found. We wanted to ensure that his life’s work will continue to benefit future generations.”
“For those of us who know Michael, it goes without saying that his positive impact on young lives has been without measure. For those who don’t, we know the world will be a better place as the reach of his work widens.”– Donor Stephen Palmer
Hollander says he was humbled and honored by the Palmers’ gift, which they delivered in person during a surprise visit to McLean. “Every time I think of them and their gift, which I do regularly, it brings a smile to my face,” he said.
For many years, BPD was not a diagnosis assigned to boys. Instead, they were branded as “juvenile delinquents” because they relied on action behaviors like fighting, vandalism, or substance use. It took years to recognize that boys can also struggle with the disorder, and Hollander was an early advocate at McLean for providing treatment for them as well.
Today, there is a range of levels of care for boys at 3East that also address common co-occurrences—like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder—that used to be common only among girls.
Because people with BPD typically have tumultuous relationships with loved ones, Hollander and his colleagues work closely with families as well, who learn the same coping and interpersonal skills.
After four decades of working with more than 1,500 adolescents, Hollander has one message for patients and families, driven home by a patient from 35 years ago who reached out recently to tell him how well things were going. “Take the long view and hang in there,” he said. “Wherever you are in your life is not your final destination.”
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