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Dr. Aaron Beck and the Dalai Lama

Dr Beck with Dalai LamaAs my colleagues have mentioned, this past September kicked off the Perelman School of Medicine’s 250th birthday year. We’ve come a long way from the days ofJohn Morgan and William Shippen, Jr., the first two professors of medicine in the College of Philadelphia in 1765, the beginnings of what would become the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.

In the 250 years since, Penn professors have gone on to perform the region’s first kidney transplant (1939), introduce pulmonary function studies for the evaluation of patients for surgery, anesthesia, and the treatment of lung diseases (1946), help a family conceive a child through IVF (1983), open the Scheie Eye Institute (1972) and discover the disease protein involved in certain types of frontotemporal lobar degeneration and Lou Gehrig's disease (2006), to name just a few of the more recent accomplishments to which our physicians and researchers lay claim.   

These life-saving advances and the people behind them are some of the many accomplishments that mark our first sestercentennial (yes, that is the term). 

Another of Penn’s stellar standouts is psychiatrist, Aaron T. Beck, MD, University Professor Emeritus in the department of Psychiatry and director of Penn’s Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center. Dr. Beck is the creator of a form of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Beck’s CBT changed psychotherapy. Whereas Freudian therapy was a winding process of talk psychotherapy that could take months to years and sometimes yielded few results, Beck’s CBT was solution oriented. If you’re depressed, Beck said, examine the relationships between your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness have been able to modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping. The process looks at the mind’s role in controlling our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others. In CBT, the therapist is directive in his or her therapeutic approach, assisting the client in selecting specific strategies to help address problems.

Introduced in 1962, CBT is now used around the world and has transformed the understanding and treatment of a wide variety of disorders, including depression, suicidal behavior, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and schizophrenia. Beck is now commonly referred to as “The Father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.”  

Along the way, Beck amassed quite a following as he spanned the globe sharing the tenets and successes of CBT. One such fan includes His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The two met when they shared the stage at the International Congress of Cognitive Psychotherapy meeting in Sweden in 2005. Dubbed a “Meeting of the Minds,” the two discussed the cognitive approach to people’s problems: the difference between the Eastern and Western approaches to anger, discontent, pain and suffering. They have remained in contact since and recently met again this summer when the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Beck’s Philadelphia apartment.

The two unite on their caring for other people, perhaps even more than they care for themselves.  

Beck joined the psychiatry faculty in 1954. In 1965, he established the Center for Cognitive Therapy at Penn. In 1998, he launched the Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center, primarily to focus on suicide prevention research, but also to train clinical researchers; later research focused on cognitive therapy for schizophrenia and psychosis.

The Center now works with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation to bring cognitive therapy into community mental health settings, a program called the Beck Initiative. The Beck Initiative has extended its training to psychiatric and mental health facilities in other states.

Among his many honors, Beck received the 2006 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, and in 2013, he became the first recipient of the Kennedy Community Health Award from the Kennedy Forum, marking the 50th anniversary of the Community Mental Health Act.

And, he’s friends with the Dalai Lama.

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