Andrew Weil and the Future of Psychotherapy


This year’s 35th-Anniversary Symposium will not only offer an up-to-the-minute perspective on the field’s recent innovations and advances, but a vision of its future. We'll be exploring how all the ferment of the moment--the exciting possibilities opened up by brain science, the growing understanding of the mind-body connection, the clinical influence of mindfulness practice, the emerging science of human performance--will shape therapeutic practice in the years to come.

In his Symposium keynote address, "The Vision of Integrative Mental Health," Andrew Weil, world-famous pioneer in the development of complementary medicine, will explore the new skills and knowledge the practitioner of tomorrow will need.  We interviewed him recently and here's what he had to say:

Psychotherapy Networker: You’ve described the overall health care system as a curious mix of “wisdom and foolishness.” What is the mix of wisdom and foolishness that you see in the mental health sector of health care?

Andrew Weil: Well first of all, while we have more mental health professionals than ever, the incidence of mental health disorders liandrew_weil-105ke anxiety and depression appears to be getting worse. So something’s wrong with that picture. It seems to me that in general the mental health professions are not very effective at dealing with the most common presenting problems. That’s parallel to what I see in general medicine where we have a rising incidence of chronic disease that we’re unable to manage. And that’s because we’re operating from an obsolete paradigm that is incomplete, that is locked into using ineffective treatments, especially pharmaceutical drugs, which, although they have their place, are simply not suited for most of the conditions that we’re faced with today.

PN: So much for foolishness. Is there wisdom as well?

AW: There is certainly wisdom in that we recognize these to be conditions that can be treated. That is a great advance over where we were, say a hundred years ago. We now recognize that mental and emotional problems are common and that they need to be dealt with. While I think psychotherapy has also been dominated by an insight-focused model that has not been very time and cost effective,  I think this is changing now as new forms of psychotherapy are available that really show people how to restructure thinking and behavior.

PN: You use the somewhat withering phrase “disease mongering” to describe the overall healthcare system. Would you make the same charge about the mental health system?

AW: Absolutely, and I think, if we look at the “depression epidemic,” I think it’s very reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of it has been manufactured by the medical pharmaceutical complex. People are being told that ordinary states of sadness are chemical imbalances in the brain that now require drug treatment. I also think another area where this is of great concern is with children and adolescents. The number if kids being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and being medicated for it is all out of proportion to reality.

PN: In your new book, Spontaneous Happiness, you're proposing something you call “Integrative Mental Health.” What does that mean?

AW: It’s a greater focus on prevention and more attention to lifestyle factors that influence health in general and mental health in particular. That means looking at how dietary choices, physical activity, stress, ways of using the mind--all of it affects mental health. This is not to deny the reality of chemical imbalances in the brain, but it is to question if that is the primary cause of what we see. And I think all these new developments in neuroscience suggest that thoughts and emotions can change the brain’s structure and function, that it doesn’t just all go in one direction from brain chemistry to thoughts and emotions. It also means looking at all the available treatments that might be of benefit. In general, the principal that I teach is that as long as treatments can be shown to be non-harmful, it’s worth trying them if there’s reasonable evidence for efficacy, even if we lack definitive evidence for efficacy. So, for example, there’s been very little research on the breathing techniques for anxiety control that I teach. But they work and I’m quite comfortable using them since they can’t cause harm. At the same time, I urge people to do research.

PN: What are the new perspectives we need to bring into mental health practice?

AW: We need to more closely question the epidemic of depression and anxiety that we’re seeing today. Therapists need to ask what is it about our modern lives that is producing these toxic reactions and how can we change things for the better. And I’d like to see mental health professionals be leaders in questioning the impact of information overload and the way the new media are affecting our brain. We also need to look more closely at the use of the Internet, texting, email.  I think the media has a very powerful effect on our emotional health.

PN: If 10 years from now, we were looking at a much more functional health care system than the one we have today, what would we see?

AW: I want to see integrative healing centers out there, something between spas and clinics where people can stay to have lifestyle analyzed and be modified, were you have a variety of practitioners working together, paid for by insurance. That’s the integrative model I’m proposing.

For more information about the incredible lineup of Symposium 2012 speakers, click here. Make sure to check back for more Symposium blogs soon, which will continue to give you a detailed view of the people and events coming up at Symposium 2012.

01.30.2012   Posted In: Symposium 2012   By Rich Simon
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