../1198/space%20holder

Martin Seligman's Journey (continued)

Professional Pessimist to Expert Optimist
   That story says quite a bit about the ever-evolving life and work of Martin Seligman. After receiving his doctorate from Penn, he proceeded, during the 1970s and 1980s, to help redefine how psychology and psychiatry viewed the mental illness of depression. His groundbreaking and rigorously-tested theory of learned helplessness -- which argued that a major component of human depression consisted of a "learned" pessimistic attitude -- led to major breakthroughs in treating and preventing depression.
   Today, thanks in part to his 1990 bestseller, Learned Optimism, Seligman is recognized as the world's preeminent psychological authority on optimism. That might seem an ironic mantle for a self-admitted grouch. But it wasn't until an exploratory meeting in the late eighties with literary agent Richard Pine, C'77, about writing a mass-market book, that Seligman started viewing his prodigious research on learned helplessness from the point of view of the half-full, versus the half-empty, glass. "At the end of that meeting, as I was walking to the door," Seligman related over breakfast in Raleigh, N.C., "Richard said, 'I'm going to give you a gift: Learned Optimism -- that's your title.'" A nostalgic smile came over Seligman's face. "Until that moment," he said, "I had been under the impression that I'd been studying pessimism all those years." (Seligman, incidentally, has repaid the "gift" from Pine many times over; the most recent fruits of their collaboration include Pine's supervision of a new deal struck with the APA wherein Pine will shepherd the publication of at least four APA-sponsored, mass-market books a year.)
   Transforming himself from one of the world's experts on pessimism and depression into its premier scientific authority on optimism is characteristic of the protean Seligman. "In any given year," he says, "I try to toss about 10 balls into the air, and see which ones bounce up high enough to catch." This past year, Seligman tossed up at least that many when he assumed the APA presidency on January 1, 1998. He clearly laid out his goals in his first "President's column" for The Monitor, the monthly APA newsletter. The column, titled "Building Human Strength: Psychology's Forgotten Mission," included the following observations:
   Before World War II, psychology had three missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent. After the war, two events changed the face of psychology. In 1946, the Veterans Administration was created, and practicing psychologists found they could make a living treating mental illness. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was created, and academic psychologists discovered they could get grants for research on mental illness
   Fifty years later, I want to remind our field that it has been side-tracked. Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves
   Fifty years of working in a medical model on personal weakness and on the damaged brain has left the mental-health professions ill-equipped to do effective prevention.We need massive research on human strength and virtue. We need practitioners to recognize that much of the best work they do is amplifying the strengths rather than repairing their patients' weaknesses. We need psychologists who work with families, schools, religious communities, and corporations to emphasize their primary role of fostering strength.

   Ten years ago, this kind of "revolutionary" rhetoric would have won few friends and influenced even fewer votes among APA's 155,000 voting members, who historically have a notoriously stodgy reputation. But times have changed.
   "Actually, I haven't encountered much criticism from [the clinical wing of APA] at all," Seligman says matter-of-factly. "I think they see that I'm giving them a way out."
   He is referring to a growing crisis facing psychologists who directly treat clients and patients -- one that goes by the name of "managed care." Seligman estimates that the real income of psychologists directly treating clients has decreased by as much as 25 percent over just the past five years. The reason is clear: managed-care organizations have severely curtailed health-care insurance coverage for services rendered by psychologists. As Seligman quipped during his campaign for the APA presidency, "Knowing a lot about helplessness is a good credential for being an APA member today."
   Before the spread of HMOs, talk used to be comparatively cheap -- when you talked with a psychologist and you had health insurance. If the psychologist told your health-insurance company that you needed to talk, then your insurance company would pick up all, or at least a significant chunk, of the bill for those discussions.
   These days, depending on your HMO, you may be lucky if your health insurer doesn't challenge the psychologists' fees incurred if you're hospitalized for suicidal behavior ("Let's see -- there's your mental-health hospitalization deductible, then there's your lifetime cap on psychotherapeutic services -- oh, and two of the therapists who visited you on the ward are not preferred providers on our plan, so we'll only cover 13 percent of their charges ").
   Indeed, these are tough times for psychologists. "Thirty years ago," Seligman says, "when universities were churning out psychology Ph.D.'s, we never envisioned -- how should I say this? -- that payments for medical care could so swiftly become, for lack of a better word, so efficient."
   Although Seligman's word choice at the moment has a positive connotation, he quickly qualifies it. The efficiency wrought by managed care is clearly, to Seligman, counter-productive. Paying for psychology as "preventative" medicine to encourage human strength, he believes, would save untold billions of health-care dollars.
   One of Seligman's major initiatives as APA president was to appoint a task force on prevention. He appointed (or, more accurately, persuaded) two noted psychologists to serve as co- chairs of this task force. One, Dr. Roger Weissberg, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-founder and executive director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning, comes from a background working with persons experiencing mental illness, their families, and various support and advocacy organizations. The other co-chair, Dr. Susan Bennett Johnson, has a background more focused on physical health.
   For the past four years, Johnson has been running the University of Florida Health Science Center. "Marty was very clever to appoint both me and Roger as co-chairs," she says. "Roger comes from a more 'traditional' mental-health background, emphasizing work on social and emotional skills. I work in a medical center, working with kids who are physically ill."
   Johnson makes a strong case for the "health-care dollar sense" of preventative psychology. "The public thinks the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, diabetes," she says, "and they think of these as primarily medical problems. But the fact is, seven out of the top nine causes of death are caused by behaviors. Take heart disease. The major causes are all behaviors -- smoking, dietary and exercise practices. And most of these behaviors start before adulthood. Managing these behaviors is up to kids and their families."
   And, if Johnson and Seligman have anything to do with it, it will also be up to the government to pay psychologists to help schools and other community institutions foster the kind of healthy behaviors, both physical and mental, that will save health-care dollars down the road.
   Incidentally, Johnson and Seligman are hardly strangers. When Seligman taught experimental psychology at Cornell University, from 1967 to 1970 (when he returned to Penn to teach), Johnson was one of his undergraduate students. Seligman convinced her to join his psych lab, which at the time was staffed primarily by male graduate students.
   "Marty got me to be a psychologist," says Johnson. "At the time, not many women went to graduate school. Going to grad school had never registered on my radar screen. But Marty's attitude was 'You're brilliant -- of course you're going to graduate school '"
   Johnson approaches the subject of Martin E. P. Seligman as an almost larger-than-life phenomenon.
   "Marty never ceases to amaze me," says Johnson. "When you're young, you think you can change the world. But as the years go by, we start to realize that what we can actually accomplish is not that big, and so we concentrate on achieving goals in smaller areas where we can exert some degree of control." Johnson pauses. "Marty never grew up. He still thinks he can change the world. And so he takes on something outlandish like this ethnopolitical-warfare thing." She is referring to a task force Seligman launched a few months into his APA presidency; its far-fetched goal was to gain funding for psychological investigations and interventions that might prevent and intervene in wars caused by ethnic conflicts.
   "How many people would say to themselves, 'What can I do about ethnopolitical warfare?'" Johnson asks rhetorically. "And yet, Marty's convinced lots of talented people to devote loads of time and effort to this project -- and, even more improbably, I hear that he's actually managed to get some significant funding for it." By the time this article appears in print, Seligman's brainchild, the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict -- based on Penn's campus under the aegis of Penn's psychology department and co-directed by Dr. Clark McCauley and Dr. Paul Rozin -- will be up and running, thanks to a $120,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation and another six-figure grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The Center already counts collaborators from universities around the globe.
   Seligman has also succeeded in delivering on a promise made during his campaign for the presidency of the APA to gain funding to launch major studies on the effectiveness of psychotherapy -- to reinforce "the fact that what psychologists do, works, and works well." While the available evidence may be enough to convince the already converted, he notes, it is "not compelling to the much sterner jury of health-care decision-makers, Congress and the American public."
   NIMH has agreed to fund such studies on a large scale, to the tune of what Seligman expects to be about $20 million. This is truly beautiful music to psychologists' ears. Armed with mountains of new data showing that an array of psychological programs and treatments are both efficient and effective, psychologists might be able to counter restrictive managed-care policies and gain more respect and confidence from lawmakers and the general public.

Continued...
January/February Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/4/99