Dr Aaron T Beck, of Pennsylvania in the USA, passed away at the beginning of this month at the impressive age of 100. He may well be the greatest medical pioneer you have never heard of.
His life wasn’t spent among petri dishes and microscopes, observing microbes in the quest for a Eureka! moment in cracking a genetic cipher or finding a definitive way to slay a virus. He never received a Nobel Prize, although he probably should have.
Even if you’ve never heard of Dr Beck, you will have heard of the treatment he developed in the 1960s. You might even have benefitted from it – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
Trained as a conventional Freudian psychoanalyst, Dr Beck’s Damascene moment was when a patient asked if she was boring him when she was delving into her past. A pattern emerged with other patients of feeling like failures, and his focus switched from probing the unconscious to countering negative thoughts in the present. It sounds too simple to be true, but it is the first form of psychotherapy to have been tested with the stringent framework applied to evidence-based medicine. Considered the “gold standard” of talking therapies, is 50-75% effective for overcoming depression and anxiety after 5-15 modules.
It has its critics, and is sometimes poorly used for patients with more acute mental health needs. But Beck should be celebrated for the revolutionary act of listening to patients. What CBT gives patients is self-awareness, and thus some sense of empowerment. For this alone, his life should be more widely celebrated.