Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | This is part three in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part four

One quarter of the world’s population is troubled by mental health problems – a billion and a half people. If we were to double the number of professional therapists, and work them around the clock, we could not make even a small dent in that statistic. Moreover, the healthier a person is, the better our therapies work, meaning that we could be even more effective in improving the lives of the remaining 4.5 billion. That illustrates just how far we are from meeting the true mental health challenge.

This challenge led the staff of Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in the 1960s to undertake a program of research into how we might make deep therapeutic experiences available to the larger population at little or no cost. The first question we wanted to answer was: What is it that people experience as therapeutic? In searching for that answer, we encountered a surprising finding.

In a study of more than 1,000 critical incidents of group therapy – i.e., the moments the participants reported to be therapeutic – WBSI researchers found that the actions of the professional leader of the group accounted for no more of these moments than did the actions of the average group member.

That finding led the researchers to organize and study leaderless, self-directed therapy groups – an idea considered outrageous at the time – but as it turned out, these self-directed groups were virtually indistinguishable from professionally led groups.

Not satisfied with that achievement, WBSI psychologists Lawrence Solomon and Betty Berzon believed these self-directed groups could be made even more effective by structuring them through the use of tape recordings suggesting group activities (audiotapes later published by Bell and Howell). The idea proved to be soundly based. A Stanford University study comparing 17 approaches to group therapy, including WBSI’s Encounter Tapes, found the institute’s leaderless approach to rank first in perceived safety and third in overall effectiveness.

The use of television with leaderless groups

Research showed that the stimulus of watching the TV program presenting genuine group therapy interaction (a first for television) clearly enhanced the effectiveness of the group meetings in the community. More than that, groups formed spontaneously and gathered informally in churches, homes and bars to view the program and then hold their own group meetings.

Still, we thought we could do better. An effort followed to capture more of the intensity of a group therapy situation than could be accomplished in a one-hour televised meeting. Again with direction from Bill McGaw, Carl Rogers and I led a group filmed for 16 hours over a weekend. The resulting film, with the editing help of famed producer and director Stanley Kramer, won the 1968 Oscar for best feature length documentary, and has since been used to foster therapeutic understanding for hundreds of thousands of people, all over the world.

Predecessor to reality TV programming

This reality fad will pass, but the fundamental power of the mass media to serve the mental health of our population will remain as a great, untapped potential. It can be particularly helpful as it capitalizes on the fact that given the right circumstances, ordinary people can be very, very good for each other.

The larger implication of our work is that mental health professionals must become what I call “metaprofessionals.” The professionals now working on the front lines should be elevated to higher levels, to meta-levels, where they can orchestrate the work of laymen, becoming, in a sense, architects of therapeutic experiences. That is a tough sell to any therapist because, by and large, they want to be present at every therapeutic moment. But if they are to meet the challenge, they will need to redesign their work to serve the larger needs. We at WBSI can attest to the fact that such endeavors can be richly rewarding.

Indeed all professionals must become metaprofessionals. The same challenges to meet the real needs of the world’s population exist as strongly in healthcare, education, legal assistance and architecture. The first step is to realize that professions, unlike businesses, should not be commodified. Professions must be goal driven, not market driven. The second step is one that WBSI has pioneered, learning to put mass media more into the public interest. The rest will be easy.

Next in this series, the legacy of famed psychologist Carl Rogers at WBSI.

Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute,

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