Helm Stierlin

(Biography written at time of nomination.)

Helm Stierlin was born in 1926 in Mannheim. He lost his father rather early. Whereas his brother became an engineer (living in Malaysia for many years), he himself was caught between philosophy and medicine. He studied both subjects in Heidelberg, Freiburg and Zurich. In Heidelberg his academic teachers were Karl Jaspers, Alfred Leber, Alexander Mitscherlich and Victor von Weizsäcker. Jaspers became his “Doctorvater” for his philosophical dissertation.

After finishing medical school, in 1953 he went to Munich. He was disappointed by German post-war psychiatry, as it was practiced at the time in Munich’s “Universitätsnervenklinik”. Through the literature of Harry Stack Sullivan’s writings he became curious about modern psychiatry and earned a scholarship for the Sheppard-Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland near Baltimore. From there he changed to Chestnut Lodge, the legendary center for psychoanalytic treatment of psychosis. Even though Frieda Fromm-Reichmann had already died in 1957, he met Otto Will, Hilde Bruch and others. At that time family therapy began to evolve rapidly throughout the United States. Soon Stierlin came into contact with Gregory Bateson (who had also worked at Chestnut Lodge before), Ted Lidz, Murray Bowen, Nathan Ackerman, Lyman Wynne, and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy. This opened the family perspective for the treatment of schizophrenia and was from then on a decisive turning point in Helm Stierlin’s until then psychoanalytically oriented professional life. After the short interlude in Europe from 1963 to 1965 (Bellevue Sanatorium, Bellevue-Kreuzlingen, Switzerland) and two shorter study periods in New Zealand and Australia, Helm Stierlin returned to the United States and became a member of the National Institute of Mental Health, where he worked together with Lyman Wynne and Margaret Singer, famous developers of family psychiatry. As head of the adolescent unit, Stierlin worked on young runaways, and his first well-regarded book was on separating parents and adolescence.

A new period began after Walter Bräutigam brought Helm Stierlin back to Heidelberg to the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine, where Stierlin became director of the Department of Psychoanalytic Research and Family Therapy in 1974. From then on his theoretical and clinical work rapidly expanded. The Heidelberg concept grew, especially in cooperation with the Milan group (Mara Selvini Parazzoli, Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin). Stierlin also dealt with psychosomatic issues from then on and with family dynamics and treatment of severe physical illness (i.e. cancer patients).

Stierlin rapidly became a fixed point in Germany’s professional and cultural scenery. He was founder of the famous journal “Familiendynamik” and author of thirteen books translated into twelve languages, e.g., Separating Parents and Adolescents, Conflict and Reconciliation, Psychoanalysis and Family Therapy, The First Interview with the Family, Unlocking the Family Door, Demokratisierung der Psychiatrie. The number of his scientific articles is approaching 300.

Helm Stierlin is also a family man at home. His wife, Satuila Stierlin, also a recognized clinician, teacher and family therapist, and his daughters, Larissa and Saskia, build the most important frame in his life.

Today almost 80 years old, Helm Stierlin is still busy in teaching, travelling and writing. He is a critical reviewer of development, not only in family therapy, but also in our society in general. Coming from a psychotherapy of schizophrenia, which heavily influenced clinical and theoretical thinking, he has expanded to become one of the prominent thinkers and workers in today’s fast-expanding world of psychotherapy.

Michael Wirsching