Sullivan was a child of Irish immigrants and grew up in the then anti-Roman Catholic town of Norwich, New York, resulting in a social isolation which may have inspired his later interest in psychiatry. He attended the Smyrna Union School, then spent two years at Cornell University from 1909, receiving his medical degree in Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery in 1917.
Along with Clara Thompson, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Otto Allen Will, Jr., Erik H. Erikson, and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Sullivan laid the groundwork for understanding the individual based on the network of relationships in which he or she is enmeshed. He developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relationships where cultural forces are largely responsible for mental illnesses (see also social psychiatry). In his words, one must pay attention to the "interactional", not the "intrapsychic". This search for satisfaction via personal involvement with others led Sullivan to characterize loneliness as the most painful of human experiences. He also extended the Freudian psychoanalysis to the treatment of patients with severe mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia.
Besides making the first mention of the significant other in psychological literature, Sullivan developed the Self System, a configuration of the personality traits developed in childhood and reinforced by positive affirmation and the security operations developed in childhood to avoid anxiety and threats to self-esteem. Sullivan further defined the Self System as a steering mechanism toward a series of I-You interlocking behaviors; that is, what an individual does is meant to elicit a particular reaction. Sullivan called these behaviors Parataxical Integrations, and he noted that such action-reaction combinations can become rigid and dominate an adult's thinking pattern, limiting its actions and reactions toward the world as the adult sees it and not as it really is. The resulting inaccuracies in judgment Sullivan termed parataxic distortion, when other persons are perceived or evaluated based on the patterns of previous experience, similar to Freud's notion of transference. Sullivan also introduced the concept of "prototaxic communication" as a more primitive, needy, infantile form of psychic interchange and of "syntactic communication" as a mature style of emotional interaction.
Sullivan's work on interpersonal relationships became the foundation of interpersonal psychoanalysis, a school of psychoanalytic theory and treatment that stresses the detailed exploration of the nuances of patients' patterns of interacting with others.
Sullivan was the first to coin the term "problems in living" to describe the difficulties with self and others experienced by those with so-called mental illnesses. This phrase was later picked up and popularized by Thomas Szasz, whose work was a foundational resource for the antipsychiatry movement. "Problems in living" went on to become the movement's preferred way to refer to the manifestations of mental disturbances.
In 1927, he reviewed the controversial anonymously published The Invert and his Social Adjustment and in 1929 called it "a remarkable document by a homosexual man of refinement; intended primarily as a guide to the unfortunate sufferers of sexual inversion, and much less open to criticism than anything else of the kind so far published."
He was one of the founders of the William Alanson White Institute, considered by many to be the world's leading independent psychoanalytic institute, and of the journal Psychiatry in 1937. He headed the Washington (DC) School of Psychiatry from 1936 to 1947.
In 1940, he and colleague Winfred Overholser, serving on the American Psychiatric Society's committee on Military Mobilization, formulated guidelines for the psychological screening of inductees to the United States military. He believed, writes one historian, "that sexuality played a minimal role in causing mental disorders and that adult homosexuals should be accepted and left alone." Despite his best efforts, others included homosexuality as a disqualification for military service.
Beginning on December 5, 1940, Sullivan served as psychiatric adviser to Selective Service Director Clarence A. Dykstra. but resigned in November 1941 after Gen. Lewis B. Hersey, who was hostile to psychiatry, became Director.
Although Sullivan published little in his lifetime, he influenced generations of mental health professionals, especially through his lectures at Chestnut Lodge in Washington, DC. Leston Havens called him the most important underground influence in American psychoanalysis. His ideas were collected and published posthumously, edited by Helen Swick Perry, who also published a detailed biography in 1982 (Perry, 1982, Psychiatrist of America). The following works are in Special Collections (MSA SC 5547) at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis: Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, Soundscriber Transcriptions (Feb. 1945-May 1945); Lectures 1-97 (begins Oct. 2, 1942); Georgetown University Medical School Lectures (1939); Personal Psychopathology (1929–1933); The Psychiatry of Character and its Deviations-undated notes.
His writings include The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (1953); "The Psychiatric Interview" (1954),Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (1947/1966); and" Schizophrenia as a Human Process (1962). His book Personal Psychopathology (1933/1972) contains a chapter on "Male Adolescence" that has extensive data on the interaction of sexual practices, personality development, and societal strictures.
After Sullivan's death, Saul B. Newton and his wife Jane Pearce established the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis in New York City.
The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry by Harry Stack Sullivan
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 1968)
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Harry Stack Sullivan's classic and groundbreaking synthesis of psychoanalysis, psychology and social science.
This book contains the fullest statement of Sullivan's developmental approach to psychiatry, showing in detail how Sullivan traced from early infancy to adulthood the formation of the person, opening the way to a deeper understanding of mental disorders in later life.
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