The birth of modern psychotherapy

Sigmund Freud. Carl Jung. Donald Meichenbaum.

Who? If you have to ask, you’re probably not a psychologist.

Donald Meichenbaum poses in auditorium following his lectureAlong with Freud and Jung, Meichenbaum, a University of Waterloo professor emeritus, was named one of the 10 most influential psychotherapists of the 20th century in a 1991 survey of North American clinical psychologists.

Meichenbaum is credited with being one of the founders of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the dominant form of psychotherapy practised today. Before he retired, he was the most-cited psychology researcher at a Canadian university.

Freud’s legacy, psychodynamic therapy, involved the analysis of memories and thoughts. Then, in the early to mid-20th century, came the behaviorists, who believed all behaviour, including thought, was merely conditioned learning.

Meichenbaum helped integrate the behavioral and psychodynamic approaches in an evidence-based way.

Waterloo’s “brightest star” influenced psychologists to look at depression and other disorders as not just emotional or behavioral problems, but “disorders of thinking” – for instance, dwelling on sad memories or expecting failure, says Jonathan Oakman, director of clinical training at Waterloo’s department of psychology.

This new way of thinking about “non-adaptive thinking,” as Oakman terms it, resulted in new therapies that focused on “helping people change the way they talk to themselves,” says Pat Bowers, a professor emeritus in psychology who has known Meichenbaum since the 1960s.

Meichenbaum was at Waterloo for 30 years, starting in 1966. In addition to co-founding cognitive-behavioural therapy, he became a leader in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and preventing it through what he calls stress inoculation training.

Another important contribution was self-instructional training, which teaches hyperactive children and people with head injuries to “think before they act,” he says.

Now in his 70s, he is still active as research director of The Melissa Institute, and is behind, a free resource for soldiers.