Psychologists Probe Their Inner Workings : Child Abuse Among Key Topics as 500 Delegates Gather at Annual Convention in San Francisco

Times Staff Writer

Squeezing into an elevator after a reception at the Top of the Mark, a grandmotherly delegate to the California State Psychological Assn. conference was saying, above the din, that she was "really looking forward to 'Murder and Madness,' " which happened to be the topic of a next-day symposium. A disembarking gentleman, not a member of the group, smiled rather uncertainly and said, "Have a nice evening."

It is the kind of encounter one might expect to hear recounted from the dais at next year's conference for, it was abundantly clear at this annual meeting, psychologists are not above poking gentle fun at their own kind during their pursuit of the truth that will set troubled minds free.

Witness one of their own stars, Rollo May, a conference speaker, talking about the rapid-fire growth of psychotherapy. (There are about 7,000 licensed psychologists in California, half of them CSPA members). Said May, "In Marin County, where I live, there's a psychiatrist practically for every person. They work on each other" in what amounts to "a way of exchanging money."

(On a more somber note, May suggested that this therapy explosion is symptomatic of "the decay of our society," of the stresses of living in "a world of no serenity and very little beauty.")

And witness Murray Bilmes, a respected Berkeley psychologist, winding up his workshop on narcissistic disorders with the observation, "It's bizarre . . . we (psychologists) live in a field where to become a leader you have to develop a narcissistic kind of wrinkle."

It is ironic, Bilmes noted, that in family therapy there are "a lot of brilliant prima donnas, solo stars, telling families to get it together." And he suggested, "Maybe we're at the point where we need no more masters."

The room filled with laughter as he recalled a classic description of an encounter group: "A group of obsessives led by a psychopath."

And witness a young iconoclast, Ofer Zur, a forensic psychologist in Oakland, who had been invited here to read his paper on "The Myths of War." In conversation Zur said of the conference itself, "This is war. This conference is non-peaceful. Peace is something bigger than a group of theorists just barking into the air. I call it barking because they don't listen to each other."

The 500 delegates had come to the four-day meeting to talk of many things but none so often, or at such length, as child abuse. In Zur's view, it was a whole profession responding to what he perceives as an artificially exaggerated social phenomenon. But Bernice Zahm, a delegate from Sherman Oaks, had a more pragmatic answer--she explained that state legislation mandates that, to renew their licenses, child psychologists must now do continuing education on the issue. "It's the anxiety of our profession right now," she said.

But there were sessions, too, on eating disorders, psychogeriatrics, psychosomatic illness, stress management, marital violence, pain, autism, drug and alcohol abuse, the legitimacy of psychologists in the courtroom and even one on the consequences of office romances.

There was also a heartfelt tribute at Saturday's annual luncheon to Bruno Bettelheim, one of the grand old men of the profession, now 82, who came to tell about "The Becoming of a Psychoanalyst in Vienna," the city of his birth. (He is now a Northern Californian).

Stress in the workplace was the subject of a workshop led by Anthony E. Reading, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and Lee Lipsker, a psychologist in the Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA School of Medicine. They have introduced stress management programs at about 20 work sites in greater Los Angeles.

Just living in Los Angeles is stressful, Reading acknowledged after the workshop, and "one of the major sources of stress is the commute. Ordinarily meek people become monsters, and with good reason. Then they're much more prone to leap into anger" throughout the day--before hitting the freeway again at day's end.

In Los Angeles, too, he said, time is a major stress-inducer--"Everything takes much longer. Also, the competitive environment is more evident in terms of looks, achievements, trappings."

Elusive Complaint

Reading pointed out, though, that stress is "very much in the eye of the beholder," a somewhat elusive complaint that has become widespread in a health-oriented society that expects to feel tip-top and anxiety-free. Frequently reported symptoms include depression, forgetfulness, change in sexual activity and eating more sweets. For some, he said, the stress can be as trivial as "getting frustrated in the lunch line at the cafeteria."

The workshop drew a cross section of delegates including some who work with "burnout" victims, a hospital administrator who said stress is a major problem among both administrative and health-care employees and a woman who said, "I work at San Quentin. And that's why I'm here."

The presenters noted that a small, though increasing, number of employers offer stress-management programs.

Said Lipsker, "Employers are reluctant, frankly, to attempt changes . . . if you say, 'Wait a minute, we have to change the color of the walls,' eyebrows are going to go up." Cynthia Scott, a psychologist and vice president of Essi Systems of San Francisco, developers of a "Stressmap" for self-testing, offered her colleagues this advice: "Most executives don't want to see a psychologist, but they'll go to a 'coach.' " So she calls herself a coach.

The nuclear nonproliferation issue was brought to the conference largely on the shoulders of two women psychologists, 66-year-old Bernice Zahm of Sherman Oaks and 69-year-old Helen Mehr of Santa Clara. They serve as co-chairs of CSPA's committee on social issues, which is the state arm of the 2,000-member national Psychologists for Social Responsibility, of which Zahm and Doris Miller of New York are co-chairs.

Mehr chaired a symposium on "Studies of Beliefs About the Nuclear Arms Race" that included a presentation by Paul J. Roy of Westin School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass., on results of his three-year dissertation study on attitudes. Roy interviewed 233 Northern Californians--defense workers, teachers, affiliated Republicans, graduate students and peace activists.

Among his conclusions: "The more people know about the nuclear arms race the more negative their attitudes are apt to be." He noted that the Republicans were the "most pro-nuclear" and also scored "significantly lower" than the other four groups on the fact scale. The most anti-nuclear group, the peace activists, scored highest on the fact scale.

Roy saw this as a significant shift from the '60s when "better informed people viewed nuclear developments as necessary for maintaining world peace" and the implication, he believes, is that "a broader effort at the education of ordinary citizens about nuclear facts may influence the course of the arms race."

The discussant for the session, Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, said that as a psychologist he is encouraged by what he perceives as a trend among peace activists "away from mere advocacy toward research." Because most psychologists believe "what research shows," Zimbardo said, this is a good omen for attracting to the movement "psychologists who don't want to think about those issues."

Not a Top Priority

Later, Zahm acknowledged that activism on the nuclear issue is not a top priority within CSPA's mainstream, where practicing psychologists are concerned both with research that will lead to new avenues of treatment and with legislative matters. (Currently, they are pushing for a state law that would mandate that conventional health insurance plans cover both physical and mental illnesses).

Said Thomas MacSpeiden, a San Diego clinical psychologist, "Psychologists are realizing it's not their training that allows them to practice, it's the legislation." He spoke of the "crazy vested-interest power struggle" between psychiatrists, who are MDs, and psychologists, who must complete four years' study beyond the bachelor's degree to become state-licensed.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility, now five years old, does not have the high profile of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with its international affiliate. "Doctors have a much easier job," Zahm said, the burden of proving medical consequences of a nuclear war. Psychological consequences are "much subtler," she said, and "you will find statistics on all sides of the question."

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