Dr. Aaron T Beck, an innovative psychotherapist widely regarded as the father of cognitive therapy, died Monday at his Philadelphia home at age 100.
Beck’s work revolutionized the diagnosis and treatment of depression and other psychological disorders. He died peacefully early in the morning, according to a statement issued by the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which he co-founded with his daughter, Dr. Judith Beck.
“My father was an incredible person who dedicated his life to helping others,” said his daughter, noting that her father continued to work until his death. “He has inspired students, physicians and researchers for generations with his passion and pioneering work.”
Beck developed the field of cognitive behavioral therapy, a clinical form of psychotherapy, at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. It prompts patients to focus on distortions in their everyday thinking, rather than the conflicts buried in the childhood.
He developed the treatment after discovering that his depressed patients frequently experienced distorted negative ideas, he called them “automatic thoughts.”
Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, which delves into a patient’s childhood and searches for hidden inner conflicts, cognitive therapy says that turning around a self-deprecating inner monologue is key to alleviating many psychological problems.
He promoted the idea with an anti-Freudian maxim: “There is more to the surface than meets the eye.”
Beck found that patients who learn to recognize the faulty logic of their negative automatic thoughts, such as “I’ll always be a failure” or “No one likes me,” can learn to overcome their fears and think more rationally, which decreased her anxiety and improved her mood. He found that the results lasted long after the therapy ended, as patients learned to cope with those thoughts on their own.
Cognitive therapy sessions follow a strict format, which always includes setting goals for the session and assigning tasks. In addition to depression, it has been used to treat conditions including bulimia, panic attacks, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and drug abuse.
Beck’s pragmatic view of psychotherapy had its skeptics. Some psychologists called cognitive therapy superficial and little more than a moral boost, but it became mandatory training for psychiatric residents.
Beck always responded to critics with data from his research. He published much of his work in his own journal, Cognitive Therapy and Research, in part because other mental health professionals ignored his findings.
He wrote or co-wrote 17 books, published more than 500 articles, and received honors for his work, including the Albert Lasker Prize for Clinical Medical Research in 2006, the Heinz Prize for Human Condition in 2001, and the Sarnat Prize from the Institute of Medicine.
The magazine American Psychologist in 1982 named Beck as one of the 10 most influential psychotherapists in history.
Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, and the third child of middle-class Russian Jewish immigrants, Beck’s first cognitive therapy exercises were on himself after a childhood hospitalization at age eight. The athletic boy and the Boy Scout began to fear hospitals and blood, and the smell of ether could cause them to pass out.
He said he overcame those fears by learning to ignore his dizziness and keep busy with other activities.
As a young psychologist, he conducted experiments that disproved the Freudian theory that people were depressed because they somehow needed to suffer. He concluded that depression did not stem from masochism, as Freud believed, but from low self-esteem.
In 2005 and 2014, he participated in public and private dialogues with the Dalai Lama. They concluded that CBT and Buddhism have a lot in common.
Beck is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, former State Judge Phyllis Beck, along with three other children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism