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Empathic Therapy: An Emerging Field

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Almost exactly one year ago, my wife Ginger and I, and a number of friends and colleagues, began to form the Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education & Living. We also began to plan its first annual Empathic Therapy Conference, scheduled to take place shortly on April 8-10, 2011 in Syracuse, New York.

During this past 12 months, the response has been so positive from around the world that it has become apparent that a new field of Empathic Therapy is emerging.

The 20th Century saw deep divisions and a variety of alternatives spring up within the overall arena of what's loosely called "mental health." Early in the century, Freud and his followers developed psychoanalysis which evolved in a cult-like manner as the Freudians literally franchised their theory and practice in psychoanalytic institutes throughout the Western World.

Inevitably, the movement fragmented, most notably with Carl Jung seeking to delve deeper into man's spiritual nature while Alfred Adler promoted a social view of human beings.

In the 1960s psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson in England broke with the establishment and developed the concept that individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia do not suffer from a disease but instead from existential crises caused in part by psychological and emotional undermining within their families of origin. A broader school of existential psychology and psychiatry emphasized the necessity of human choice in a world that was seen as essentially devoid of meaning.

During this same period of time, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz in the United States criticized "the myth of mental illness" -- the illusion that mental and moral problems can be understood as biological disorders or diseases. He effectively argued that involuntary treatment was not treatment but coercion, and that it was a crime against humanity.

In psychology Carl Rogers developed what would become "person-centered" therapy, an empathic approach based on helping individuals discover and give voice to their own needs and directions. Within psychology, a broader field of humanistic psychology developed under the leadership of individuals like Rogers and Abraham Maslow with emphasis on promoting positive or life-enhancing values.

In partial agreement with many of these critiques and alternative views, in the 1970s I became the first "insider" within psychiatry to systematically and scientifically examine -- and to speak openly against -- the damaging effects of drugs, electroshock and lobotomy. I developed the scientific concept of brain-disabling treatment which observes that all biopsychiatric treatments work precisely by causing brain damage and dysfunction.

I then added the scientific concept of intoxication anosognosia ("medication spellbinding"), which explains how individuals taking psychiatric drugs can feel or believe they are better off when in reality they are impaired. I also joined other voices calling for a more caring and empowering approach to therapy, especially psychiatrist Loren Mosher who showed in a project called Soteria House that individuals diagnosed schizophrenic recovered better in medication-free homelike environments than in drug-drenched mental hospitals.

Within these various approaches, some practitioners and leaders adopted polar opposite social positions. Many devotees of Thomas Szasz place so much emphasis on individual freedom and so little on empathy that, like Szasz, they reject almost any involvement in psychiatric reform other than to oppose involuntary treatment. In what could be seen as callousness and social irresponsibility, they see no reason to put themselves forward to defend the unwitting or vulnerable victims of psychiatric abuse.

Szasz, for example, refused to support and even criticized my successful campaign to stop the return of lobotomy and psychosurgery in the 1970s. He utterly rejects the idea that love, caring or empathy are at the heart of good therapy or the good life.

Seemingly at an opposite pole from Szasz, some have taken the position that psychotherapy must recognize that individual happiness cannot be achieved in a world filled with injustice and inequality, and that guilt is a righteous and inevitable emotion given the suffering of others. Under the guise of empathy, they discourage people from seeking their own personal happiness.

Meanwhile, beleaguered biological psychiatry circled its wagons, simply ignored all of the intellectual ferment taking place in the field, went into formal collaboration with the drug companies, and declared that human psychological suffering is genetic and biological in origin and best suited to treatment with drugs and electroshock.

Claiming the mantle of scientific progress, psychiatry took a giant step back into its darkest ages. The vast majority of psychiatrists stopped doing any psychotherapy. With increasingly little to offer, establishment psychiatry in the 1970s turned to the pharmaceutical industry to support its power and authority with untold millions of dollars.

Academic psychology as taught in college and graduate schools largely adopted the gospel of organized psychiatry, often with an amalgam of behaviorism that together treat human beings as mechanical devices rather than choice-making agents and value-creating beings. In clinical psychology and social work graduate schools, the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders became accepted with fundamentalist fervor. Humanistic, existential or person-centered graduate school programs or clinics have become difficult to find.

This brief sketch of necessity skims the surface. It's meant as background for bringing out the unique as well as the shared qualities of the new field of Empathic Therapy.

First, Empathic Therapy is a big tent. Divergent views, cordially expressed and discussed, are welcome. However, the goal of the Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education and Living is to study and to encourage genuine human engagement as the centerpiece of all good helping relationships. If you are only in partial agreement, come along. You will find the participants happy to engage and even to embrace differences of opinion, provided they do not oppress those who seek help.

Second, genuine empathy, as well as good science, lead to the conclusion that damaging the brain with drugs, electroshock and lobotomy is simply wrong, and should be actively opposed. Unfortunately, the leadership of the various divergent schools and critiques have rarely if ever dared stand up to organized psychiatry by criticizing the use of these brain-damaging treatments. Jung, Adler, Rogers, and nearly all the existential and humanistic leadership have always taken a "live and let live" approach to the most abusive psychiatric practices. Szasz was the first to clearly and meritoriously criticize involuntary treatment, but he and many of his followers have taken a hands-off attitude toward the actual physical abuses perpetrated by psychiatry.

Third, authoritarian viewpoints embedded in psychiatry, and in much of contemporary psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, have no place in empathic therapy. Diagnosing people with pejorative labels elevates the therapist to a superior position while diminishing those who seek help.

Fourth, unlike biological psychiatrists and unlike behaviorists, empathic therapy rejects a view of human beings that sees them as driven by their genetics and biochemistry, and instead emphasizes the choice-making and values, including ethical principles of living, empathy and love. As I have documented in dozens of scientific articles and books, including Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry, Second Edition (2008), there is no convincing evidence that so-called psychiatric disorders are physical diseases or genetic and biochemical in origin.

Fifth, empathic therapy rejects both polarized social viewpoints -- the one that says our personal freedom and happiness is all that matters and the other that says our personal happiness cannot be achieved until Utopia is created on Earth. Every human being has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and true satisfaction in life always involves freely chosen relationships characterized by genuine engagement and love. For many, this engagement will be mostly focused on more intimate and family lives, and for some others, it will involve taking on larger community and political concerns.

Sixth, unlike nearly all the well-known alternatives, empathic therapy encourages the inclusion in therapy of freely chosen spiritual and religious beliefs. The humanistic and existential approaches sometimes include "spirituality," but often reject a belief in God. Empathic therapy does not promote religion, and agnostics and atheists belong to the Center and support its efforts. However, empathic therapists understand that God is central to the lives of many, if not most individuals, and that a therapeutic approach will be most successful when it includes, as Alcoholics Anonymous does, an integration of recovery and healing with principles of living, higher values and with God according to the individual's choice.

Genuine empathy, sound ethics and science leads to the following conclusions: that genuine caring engagement is at the heart of all helping relationships; that biological psychiatry with its drugs, electroshock and involuntary treatment is anti-therapeutic, unscientific, unethical, and should be opposed; that authoritarianism and pretenses at superior knowledge have no place in therapy; that human beings should be encouraged to pursue their own happiness with the understanding that genuine satisfaction involves ethical, loving relationships with others and with life; and that the most effective therapy integrates an individual's highest values, humanistic or religious, into the process.

To learn about the 15 Guidelines for Empathic Therapy, click here.

Join the emerging new field of Empathic Therapy. Professionals and the public are welcome. Join the nonprofit Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education and Living. And come to the first international Empathic Therapy Conference in Syracuse, New York, only days from now, April 8-10, 2011.

Peter R. Breggin, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Ithaca, New York, and the author of dozens of scientific articles and more than 20 books including Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry, Mediation Madness, and Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock and Biochemical Theories of the "New" Psychiatry. The Empathic Therapy Conference brings together more than forty presenters and a diverse audience from around the world. Professionals and the public are welcome. Learn about the conference at http://www.empathictherapy.org.