Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

2001

Aaron Beck

Dr. Aaron Beck receives the Heinz Award in the Human Condition for his pioneering breakthrough in developing cognitive therapy as an effective treatment of psychological disorders in millions of individuals suffering mental and behavioral health challenges. Dr. Beck is the founder of the fastest growing, most extensively studied form of psychotherapy in America, which he calls "simple and effective."

Presently the University Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Beck is world renowned as the "father of cognitive therapy." He was trained as a psychiatrist in the 1940s and 50s when the prevailing treatments for mental disorders were either medication or psychoanalytic therapy. He felt that neither of these approaches was conducive to helping people learn to help themselves, to develop confidence, hope, and enduring positive change.

Dr. Beck's early research into the psychology of depression prompted him to develop a treatment that would help patients to understand and deal with their psychological problems and led to significant advances in the treatment not only of depression, but also of anxiety, panic and eating disorders, phobias and suicidal problems as well. More recently, this treatment has been applied successfully to substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Cognitive therapists believe that psychological disorders are based in part on distorted outlooks, which can be adjusted if a patient recognizes his errors in thinking. Depressed patients, for example, see the glass as half empty, never half full. Focusing on problem solving provides an appealing and cost-effective alternative to increasingly popular drug treatments. In fact, cognitive therapy is the only psychotherapy to have had over 200 clinical trials or outcome studies indicating its effectiveness. By identifying self-defeating thoughts in emotional, psychological and behavioral disorders, cognitive therapists can offer patients immediate treatment, unlike more traditional therapies that take much longer to have any perceptible impact.

Dr. Beck's cognitive therapy has brought relief to millions of patients and sparked a revolution in psychotherapy. His courageous and brilliant research, practice, teaching and mentorship have resulted in the training of thousands of mental health professionals who are making significant advances toward helping people who suffer the ill effects of stress and emotional disorders. Over the years, bright, young, idealistic mental health professionals have gravitated to Dr. Beck, more recently to the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, directed by his daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, in Philadelphia, seeking a new direction for their life's work. These professionals have established training and research centers in practically every developed nation in the world.

Dr. Beck's contributions to his field have influenced not only psychiatry and psychology, but other mental health disciplines as well, including psychiatric social work, nursing and counseling. It is difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Beck's innovative approach as an alternative to the more traditional long-term psychotherapy. Dr. Beck's groundbreaking approach that created cognitive therapy has resulted in a gift to the millions of people whose lives are so much better because of it.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD

October 2013 - Aaron T. Beck, M.D., became the first recipient of the Kennedy Community Mental Health Award from the Kennedy Forum, a new initiative led by former U.S. representative Patrick J. Kennedy focused on improving the lives of people with mental illness, while at the same time recognizing the enormous strides made in patient care and research over the last 50 years. - University of Pennsylvania

November 2009 - Beck, "the father of cognitive therapy," has been presented with the Anna-Monika Prize, awarded once every two years by the Anna-Monika Foundation, for advancing knowledge of the biological structure and functional disturbances of depression. - University of Pennsylvania

September 2006 - Beck will receive the 2006 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award for his pioneering work in developing cognitive therapy as a treatment for depression and other mental health conditions. This award, valued at $100,000, is considered to be the nation's most prestigious medical prize. - The New York Times

January 2006 - Beck receives the Adolf Meyer Award, and gives the Adolf Meyer Award lecture at a conference held by the American Psychiatric Association. - Beck Institute

October 2005 - Beck receives the second-ever Morselli Medal for Lifetime of Research in the Field of Suicide. The Morselli Medal, given by the International Academy for Suicide Research, is granted to those who demonstrate exhaustive efforts in the study of suicide and its methods of prevention. - International Academy of Suicide Research

December 2003 - Beck wins the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award for Psychology from the University of Louisville, notably because he is considered "the founder of cognitive therapy" and has contributed greatly to new and improved systems of psychotherapy. - Philadelphia Daily News

October 2003 - Beck receives the 2003 Sarnat International Award in Mental Health from the Institute of Medicine. The award, which includes a medal and a $20,000 cash prize, is being given to Beck "in recognition of the international scope and significance of his contributions to psychiatry and mental health." - Institute of Medicine

December 2002 - Beck receives the inaugural Exemplary Achievement Award, presented to him by the Treatment and Research Advancements National Associations for Personality Disorders, for his work and research in the field of bi-polar disorder. - Beck Institute

January 2001 - Beck is honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philadelphia Psychiatric Society for his work in the field of cognitive therapy. - Beck Institute

Speech

3/5/2001 - Acceptance Speech

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm deeply honored to be selected for the Award for the Human Condition, and to be included with those who have made such important contributions to society. I'm especially grateful to the Foundation, and specifically to Teresa Heinz, for their policy of encouraging non-traditional, innovative approaches to the solution of human problems, as well as the enrichment of our cultural heritage. By recognizing the efforts of innovators and highlighting the importance of these achievements, I believe the Awards move us forward to the betterment of mankind.

The Award ceremony gives me a chance to reflect on what experiences led to my being here today. When I was growing up, I was largely interested in nature. I participated in bird watches. I identified plants and trees and examined microbes under a microscope. For many years I served as a camp naturalist. Later, I became interested in what makes people tick; particularly what makes them happy or sad, and confident or insecure.

When I eventually ended up in the field of psychiatry, I became involved in observing the more extreme aspects of the spectrum of human behavior. I was struck in particular, about how people's biases against themselves and against other people, were the cause of much suffering; their excessive anxiety, anger, and depression. It seemed that a good part of these complex problems could be attributed to our evolutionary history. It's better to over-react to potential danger than to under-react. False positives are better than false negatives. One false negative and you're eliminated from the gene pool.

Thus, the price of survival and preservation of our lineage would be a lifetime of angst or anger. These innate dispositions of course, are accentuated by life's circumstances and situations. These two factors conversely, produce a very strong bias in the way afflicted individuals evaluate themselves and other people, and do lead to psychiatric disorders.

However, it's not inevitable that we should be the victims of our evolutionary heritage and the various traumas that we've experienced during our development. Nature has also endowed us with the mental resources to overcome these engrained patterns. By tapping into these rational resources, we can correct our cognitive biases through a procedure that I've called cognitive therapy, and free ourselves to deal with the problems realistically and to attain a reasonable way of life.

Even the floridly delusional patients have the potential for correcting their extreme biases. With help, they can learn to activate the rational part of their minds and direct it to correct their irrational tendencies. These same principles can be applied on a broad scale. The same kind of biases that lead to irrational anger in marital conflicts, say, present in such complex societal problems as prejudice, ethnic conflict, and, yes, even wars.

We can draw on our rich resources of rationality to recognize and modify the irrationality that causes so much suffering. The voice of reason is silent, but we can use appropriate methods to amplify it and of course, to listen to it.

In closing, I'd like to express my appreciation to the members of my family who have, in their own way, supported my work. To my wife, Phyllis, who's been the balance wheel between my self doubts and my runaway fantasies. And my three children who are here today, who have worked with me in various capacities as consultants, and also as my directors.

Thank you again.
Aaron Beck