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

March 04, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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