Mental Health Heroes Series: Dr Aaron T. Beck, founding Father of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

Mental health is a field of study fraught with stigma, socially and politically. Which is a terrible shame, especially when we recognise rates of psychological disorders are astoundingly high. Still the number of people in treatment for disorders is unfathomably low due to such stigma, but also because of technical barriers, poor marketing, poor user experience, poor design, lack of funding and plain old apathy.

Candle’s mission is to make peer to peer mental health support normal, informal and effective, central to making that a reality is education that works for everyone.  By making available the idea and belief that concepts within CBT can and do work, that they do make a difference, we might just begin to remedy the some of the difficulty each of us experience, as we often naively confront our cognitive distortions.  

… because… ALL humans are flawed. There is not a single person alive that doesn’t have cognitive distortion that they are either dealing with or not yet aware of. Developing a culture of open source knowledge of what these distortions are and democtratising the tools to reframe thoughts, behaviors, and actions can help us all live happier healthier lives.

So, What is Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.

It’s most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems.

Pros and cons of CBT

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be as effective as medicine in treating some mental health problems, but it may not be successful or suitable for everyone.

Some of the advantages of CBT include:

  • it may be helpful in cases where medicine alone has not worked
  • it can be completed in a relatively short period of time compared with other talking therapies
  • the highly structured nature of CBT means it can be provided in different formats, including in groups, self-help books and apps (you can find mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library)
  • it teaches you useful and practical strategies that can be used in everyday life, even after the treatment has finished

Some of the disadvantages of CBT to consider include:

  • you need to commit yourself to the process to get the most from it – a therapist can help and advise you, but they need your co-operation
  • attending regular CBT sessions and carrying out any extra work between sessions can take up a lot of your time
  • it may not be suitable for people with more complex mental health needs or learning difficulties, as it requires structured sessions
  • it involves confronting your emotions and anxieties – you may experience initial periods where you’re anxious or emotionally uncomfortable
  • it focuses on the person’s capacity to change themselves (their thoughts, feelings and behaviours) – this does not address any wider problems in systems or families that often have a significant impact on someone’s health and wellbeing

Some critics also argue that because CBT only addresses current problems and focuses on specific issues, it does not address the possible underlying causes of mental health conditions, such as an unhappy childhood.

(Stay tuned next month for  Attachment Theory)

Aaron Temkin Beck was born on July 18, 1921, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the youngest of five children. Beck went on to graduate from Brown University in 1942 where he majored in English and Political Science. He then earned his M.D. from Yale University in 1946. In 1950, Beck married Phyllis W. Beck and the couple went on to have four children. His daughter, Judith S. Beck, is also an influential cognitive-behavior therapist who serves as the President of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Dr. Beck is given the title of Father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and is  also named one of the top 5 most influential psychotherapists of all time. 

Dr. Beck has published over 600 articles. He has authored or co-authored 25 books. The work he did in developing various scales for measuring depression is still in primary use today, and is likely the foundation for every mood tracking app you’ve  added to your home screen. 

His work in cognitive behavioral therapy stands on the shoulders of other great psychologists like George Kelly and the vocabulary of Frederic Bartlett and Jean Piaget. The cognitive constructs theory of Kelly and the vocabulary created by Bartlett around the theories of schemas and the vocabulary of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development were foundational in Beck’s initial work in CBT.

As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Beck noticed a recurring remission of patients’ symptoms after implementing his advised techniques. With this realization, came the understanding that his patients were experiencing cognitive distortion from repeated stories around triggering events that he soon labeled automatic negative thoughts. the process of CBT therefore being, to reframe, shift perspective and see new versions of truth.

Through his work with depressed patients, Dr. Beck developed the Negative Cognitive Triad. He found 3 types of dysfunctional beliefs, or thoughts, that depressed people were experiencing. His findings suggested that these types of thoughts dominated the thinking of people with depression.

  1. “I am defective or inadequate.”
  2. “All of my experiences result in defeats or failure.”
  3. “The future is hopeless.”

Dr. Beck believed that a close, personal relationship with the patients was crucial. The development of a trusting relationship was necessary to allow for the exploration of automatic negative thoughts. The mere admission of these thoughts was unsettling for some of his patients. The reframing of these thoughts through work with Dr. Beck resulted in significant numbers of patients’ self-reported improvement. 

Just think, who in our lives do we already trust? 

The Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy was founded to further investigate the usage of his groundbreaking theory in helping people suffering from various psychological disorders. The institute was founded with his daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, to further investigate and serve a worldwide resource for CBT.