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The legacy of Dr Aaron Beck – the ‘father of CBT’

You may never have heard of Dr Aaron Beck until this week, but if you’ve ever had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) you’ll have experienced the pioneering and life-changing work he carried out. Dr Beck died on Monday at the age of 100, at the end of a seven decade-long career dedicated to improving the lives of people facing mental health challenges.

Dr Beck began to develop CBT in the 1960s, as the first evidence-based treatment for mental health difficulties. Originally a neurologist, he had begun studying psychoanalytic therapy, which included examining the dreams of depressed patients. He formed a theory that depression arises as a result of ‘faulty thinking’ and that this thinking can be changed! He started to experiment with this idea in treatment, and rather than being in psychoanalytic therapy for years his patients started to get better after just a few months.

Countless people around the world have now benefited from Dr Beck’s research and development work, which is widely recognised as having transformed the field of mental health. Today, CBT is one of the most practised and well-researched forms of therapy worldwide, and is recommended in the UK by the NHS and NICE.

CBT itself is a very scientific approach, which involves therapists and patients working together to understand a problem, come up with theories about what might help the patient move forward and feel better, and then use evidence and experiments to put those theories into practice. While it’s most often used to treat depression and anxiety, CBT has also been found to be effective in treating other conditions such as schizophrenia and substance misuse.

As well as the many thousands of patients his work has helped, Dr Beck has been a source of great inspiration to mental health practitioners. He has written or co-written more than 600 books on CBT, and in 1994 he co-founded the Beck Institute with his daughter, Dr Judith Beck, to provide training to therapists. The ongoing research carried out at the Institute ensures that the CBT approach is always evolving.

“For all of us at Ieso, Dr Beck is a true figurehead, whose work is at the heart of everything we do,” says Stephen Freer, Ieso’s Chief Clinical Officer. “Like him, and his colleagues at the Beck Institute, we’re constantly learning from our patients, and using what we learn to improve our services. In fact, Ieso’s Therapist Insight Model, which uses deep learning to investigate which components of online CBT work most effectively, is referred to affectionately as ‘Tim’ – which is how Dr Beck was known to his friends.”

Dr Aaron Beck has had a significant impact and influence on many of Ieso’s therapists – on both a personal and professional level.

“CBT has given me my whole career,” says psychological therapist Joanne Adams. “I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to learn about CBT, initially as a practitioner of guided self-help based on CBT principles and then as a therapist delivering CBT to patients with depression and anxiety. The approach allows me to help people to help themselves; it’s important to me to do therapy with people, not to people. There’s so much to learn that the growing will never stop. I know CBT has saved some of my own patients’ lives – and this is thanks to the creativity and dedication of Dr Aaron Beck.”

Jennifer Gentile, Senior Vice president of Ieso’s Research and Clinical Innovation in the US, met Dr Beck in person at a training event a few years ago.

“Being around Beck made you feel like you had important things to say,” she remembers. “He demonstrated how to really listen to a patient: he treated every individual with respect, was curious about their unique experience and didn’t put them into a box. He strove for knowledge and understanding of how to help people live their best lives while managing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. Thankfully, his teaching will live on through all the students he taught. He has built an amazing legacy which has a global impact.”

Amazingly, Dr Beck was still working until very shortly before he died, and according to his daughter he remained “passionate about continuing his life’s work of alleviating human suffering through the development of evidence-based psychological therapies”. If you want to learn more about this remarkable man and his work, you can read his obituary here.

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