Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Dr. Aaron T. Beck's enduring impact on mental health

Few individuals have had as great an impact on psychiatry as Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who is often referred to as the father of cognitive therapy (CT). In 2011, Dr. Beck celebrated his 90th birthday. As such, this seems like an ideal time to reflect on his many contributions over the years.

In the 1950s, when Dr. Beck was beginning his career in psychiatry, psychoanalytic theory dominated the field. Psychoanalysis recognizes that the relationships and circumstances of early life continue to affect people as adults, and that human behavior results from unconscious as well as conscious or rational motives. Psychoanalysts and patients engage in an extended — often years-long — effort to make the unconscious conscious, the aim being to understand and resolve (or at least to help the patient bear) the conflicts at the root of suffering.

Although originally a devotee of the psychoanalytic method, Dr. Beck began to develop an alternative approach to working with depressed patients. Over time, Dr. Beck appreciated that many of them were prone to automatic streams of negative thought. Building on the insights of two predecessors — psychologists George Kelly and Albert Ellis — Dr. Beck developed a theory of depression based on the way people processed information. He believed that each individual sometimes interprets external events in a way that is biased or distorted — and that this may contribute to their mood disturbance.

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