December 1st, 2014

Psychologist continues to explore human interaction

Long revered for his work with family and group systems, David Kantor, Ph.D., continues to press forward even in his 80s with groundbreaking theories and models. The founder of three research and training institutes, including the Kantor Institute of Cambridge, Kantor has taught at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Northeastern University, has written several books, including “Inside the Family,” and has received grants from the National Institute of Mental Health for his research on family systems.

From the creation of a unique group home in Cambridge, Mass. in 1959, to his work with families and then corporations, Kantor has explored the ways that humans interact in times of stress as well as how change can be measured and quantified. His most recent work, with designing a generic model for clinicians and counselors to use in creating practice models, has led to a series of books, the first of which he expects to release within the next few months.

Kantor’s work has gained a following around the world and his theory of the interactions between individuals and teams has gained him notoriety in several fields. He spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his expansive career and the work he hopes to continue.

Q:  Your early work on a student project that turned into the creation of the group home, the Wellmet Project, in Cambridge was recently highlighted in a documentary shown at a film festival in Boston. How did that all come about?

A:  Wellmet came from a course I was teaching at Harvard in 1959. The students in my course, with the permission of commissioner of mental health and the commissioner of the hospital, were admitted as patients to Metropolitan State Hospital where they lived as patients. It was out of that experience that we decided to create Wellmet. With the students, we raised funds and bought a house in Cambridge and staffed it.

Q:  The documentary was presented as part of the Mad In America International Film Festival, which posited the argument that mental health care is too reliant on pharmaceuticals. Do you agree with the festival organizers’ premise?

A: This is really a matter of great importance to me. You won’t remember, but in 1960 or ‘61 Jack Kennedy poured a lot of money into Massachusetts because it was rich in researchers and institutions devoted to leading edge treatment for the mentally ill. We were to redesign the whole treatment industry. It was a very serious undertaking and, until Nixon came along and stripped research funding to projects of this kind, we enjoyed the glory days of research funding from NIMH here in Cambridge.

That avalanche of funding ended and I think that all of the ambitious plans that we had, like three-quarter houses, all kinds of employment schemes, all kinds of follow-up with patients after they left the hospital, those designs and those plans, those ambitions, died somewhere in the early 1980s.

The people behind the festival are concerned, as I am, with the way in which psychiatry and psychology (but particularly psychiatry) have been co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry. There is some fairly serious literature that documents how that co-option took place beginning after psychotropic drugs made their way in. Psychoanalytic psychiatry was lapsing and the pharms came along and offered lots of money for the endorsement of drugs. That is at the core of the social action that is gathering momentum against the overuse of medication. We do know for example, that two and three-year olds are being treated with medication… literally, two and three year olds… and so there is a huge backlash of social activists and ex-patients taking place.

I have watched, from when I was an intern in the Metropolitan State Hospital in 1955 when the drugs were first being introduced, the whole delivery system of drugs. Even most of my psychiatrist friends have switched to psycho-pharmacology. I have been concerned and watching what I believe is an unethical and dangerous overuse and over prescription of medication and diagnosing.

Even Wellmet at this point has been converted from what it was to basically a standard treatment for addiction agency with very little of the radical ideas that we were trying to introduce, that medication and institutionalization were not necessarily the best institutional context for treatment.

Q:  You call yourself a systems psychologist and you are working primarily with corporations these days. How does that link with the work you did in the past?

A:  All of the work I have done and the books I have been writing, including the last one, “Reading the Room,” are all within that realm. Systems psychology is the one thread that runs through my entire career and it has been a long one since I am 86 going on 87. I got interested in systems and family therapy in the early 1960s. There was big interest in the systems approach to intervention and in some ways directly competing with the psychoanalytic approach. Even Wellmet was a family systems model, a unique family where students and adults took the role of parents, of course. So there is a thread from the Wellmet days to the study of families and then teams which followed soon after.

Q:  What are you working on now?

 A: I have moved into what I think is the most important arena to study at this point: Can we get a quantitative measurement of change in human systems? I already had a unit of measurement for vocal acts and a theory that specified that there are only 36 code-able vocal acts.

I am currently working with Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology putting together a study of three teams in a single organization. So that is where I come from late 1950s into the 60s with the research thread.

Q: What is next?

 A: I think that where I am going now is into insisting or strongly advising all clinicians to spend time developing their own practice model. What they think they are doing with clients is very different from what they are actually doing because the self, the personal model, is intertwined with the practice model. Way back in the 1980s, in one of those eureka moments, I came up with what I thought and still do think as the model of models: a generic theory of models and model building that applies to any human system that relies on the interchange of an interventionist of some kind, a clinician, consultant, etc.

I have become a strict advisor that all clinicians develop models of their own because that is what they will be practicing in the room anyway.  

I am writing four books about model building. One is called “On Becoming An Interventionist, a Noble and Dangerous Profession.” The second is called “Your Model with You in It.” The third is called “Your Practice with You in It,” which is different from your model because your model is what you say you do and the practice is what you really do. The last is called “Durable Change and How to Secure It” in the system you are treating.

It is a very ambitious project that I have undertaken. I have just finished and I am editing the first of the four books … and trying to stay alive long enough to finish the other three.

Q:  A noble goal…

 A: Yes… The first book should be done a month from now and it will probably come out within three months.  

Plus, I am trying now to leave behind a basis for actually studying and measuring change. I think that will be the last big push for me.  

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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