NEW YORK -- Psychoanalysis is widely perceived as arcane and irrelevant, and its practitioners as arrogant and aloof. Yet the field has much to offer the community and society in a troubled time and deserves more credit than it frequently gets.
These were the most prominent themes to emerge in a discussion session at a meeting sponsored by the American Psychoanalytic Association.
"We have an image problem," said Dr. Stuart W. Twemlow, who cochaired the session. He cited marketing research data to the effect that mental health colleagues see the field as rigid and disconnected from social realities and concerns, and many association members share this view.
Concern about the place of psychoanalysis in the world is not new Mark D. Smaller, Ph.D., of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Chicago, pointed out that in 1932, Freud warned that "if psychoanalysis didn't speak to issues of culture and society it would wither and die."
The contemporary ambiguities of this place were thrown into sharp relief by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, participants suggested. Dr. Smaller recalled that in classes at the Chicago Institute, the attack and its reverberations were simply not discussed during the days following. "We're so disconnected from society even that didn't affect us," he said.
But Dr. Gail Saltz of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute pointed out that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the institute did significant outreach, making members available for counseling throughout the community and operating a crisis center.
She noted, however, that in this situation, psychoanalysts working in the community often failed to identify themselves as such. "We've found across the board that our bad reputation precedes us," Dr. Saltz said.
Dr. Henri Parens of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia agreed that in consulting with parent and teacher groups and with other mental health professionals, "when you use the word 'psychoanalyst,' they go deaf and blind."
Some of this mistrust has roots in the past. Dr. Parens suggested that "the backlash against analysis" dates from the years when, as the dominant force in psychiatry, analysts did their best to exclude biologic psychiatrists from academic departments.
Dr. Twemlow observed that certain bygone theoretical constructions, such as the "schizophregenic mother," continue to resonate in the ongoing belief in some quarters that "Freud is not just irrelevant but harmful to the fundamental family structure. …