Dr. Judith Beck with her father, Dr. Aaron Beck
At a fundraiser on November 11, 2013, Aaron Beck talked with an audience about Depression Therapy. While treating patients for depression in the 1960’s, he recognized a repeated pattern. When he helped patients change their current thoughts about themselves, the patients’ moods would improve. For example, a patient would stop thinking “I am useless” because he lost a job, to “I am talented, I will find a new job.” Dr. Beck began to change his focus of therapy from analyzing childhood events, to challenging patients to change their negative thoughts. Additionally, he began encouraging them to recognize and remember the many positive aspects of their lives. He went into academia at the University of Pennsylvania where he expanded, researched, and taught his ideas to others in the field of psychology,
Dr. Beck, 92, is known as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and is internationally respected for his views on psychotherapy. Dr. Beck has written dozens of books detailing effective ways to treat different disorders by using his “thought changing” techniques. The November 11 event was a fundraiser for his Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy. The money raised will be used to defray the costs of teaching CBT to practitioners and allow low-income clients to receive CBT treatment at the Institute.
Stacy Burling’s article published in the Inquirer on November 11, 2014 describes the details of the event:
Judith Beck, a formidable psychologist in her own right, describes her father, the psychiatrist Aaron Beck, with a mixture of amusement and veneration, as a “rock star.”
The Becks were the attractions at a fund-raising event last week for their Beck Institute in Bala Cynwyd. But it was clear that the elder Beck, known as the father of cognitive behavior therapy and one of the world’s most influential therapists, was the main draw.
Before they took the stage at WHYY in Center City to discuss their form of treatment – aimed at changing self-defeating thinking – they met with 70 “patrons” who had paid $250 a ticket for one-on-one access.
Aaron Beck, known as Tim to friends, is 92 and seriously stooped, but he was engaging and congenial as well-wishers waited in line for a chance to bend down to talk with him.
He seemed to relish the job of selling the institute, which he and Judith Beck founded 20 years ago. After the remaining 90 ticket-holders ($150 and $75) were within earshot, he joked that he and she had kept news of the center quiet until now.
“This is sort of a coming-out party for the Beck Institute,” he said.
The institute provides training in cognitive therapy as well as treatment. It recently expanded both and was raising money to help defray costs for students and patients who cannot afford the fees. This was its first fund-raiser.
“We decided the time was right to get the word out more about what we do,” Judith Beck said.
Many people think all psychotherapy is the same and equally effective, she said. “You need someone with a kind ear and the expertise to get you over what you’re suffering.”
Aaron Beck was an early advocate of measuring the effectiveness of his therapeutic approach and says cognitive therapy is now well-positioned because the Affordable Care Act encourages the use of “evidence-based” treatments.
Under the benevolent questioning of WHYY host Marty Moss-Coane, the Becks talked about their past and future with a very supportive audience.
Before Aaron Beck described how he happened on the new approach in the 1960s, he warned, “I’ve told this story before, so those who’ve heard it before can turn off their hearing aids.”
He was doing traditional psychotherapy when a patient revealed that she worried during their sessions that she was boring him. Her tales of her sexual escapades were not boring. Beck started asking other patients what they were thinking, and a theme emerged. As they went about their lives, they were telling themselves, “I am a loser.”
No wonder they were unhappy.
Beck thought it might be more fruitful to worry less about how patients felt about their mothers and work instead on changing their thinking. In each case, he’d ask them “What is the evidence?” for the negative thoughts, and challenge them to consider another explanation. He also urged them to focus more on positive things that happened, since his depressed patients seemed to selectively remember the bad.
Patients started feeling better, he said, and after 10 or 12 sessions, they told him they longer needed him.
“Until then, I was able to fill my schedule up,” Beck said drily.
This newfound efficiency, he said, led to his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania.
While new therapists get training in cognitive therapy, and many say they do it, Judith Beck said most are not doing what she recognizes as cognitive behavior therapy.
In a true CBT session, she said, the therapist assesses the patient’s mood, asks about changes since their last meeting, including positive events, and works with the patient to set an agenda for the hour. They talk about distorted automatic thoughts and how to change them.
At the end, the therapist asks the patient to summarize what happened and write down what was important. They talk about the patient’s homework for the next session, and the therapist asks for feedback and ideas on how to do better next time. That sets a “collaborative” tone.
As for the future, Aaron Beck said he thinks that evidence eventually will lead to a single approach. Cognitive therapy will be a big component of it, but it will be “fleshed out and modified in many ways.”
Aaron Beck, who uses an iPhone, iPad, and Skype, also thinks technology will bring better treatment to rural residents.
Judith Beck said her highly accomplished family – her mother is retired Superior Court Judge Phyllis Beck – gets along well.
“My father would say, ‘Problems are meant to be solved,’ ” she said.
“Have you thought about working with Congress?” Moss-Coane quipped at one point.
Aaron Beck said his publisher considered sending copies of his book, Prisoners of Hate, to lawmakers when it came out in 1999, but never did.