John Strauss

(Biography written at time of nomination.)

John Strauss is a warm and gentle man and a scholar, a prolific psychiatrist researching persons suffering from severe mental disorders.  His over 200 scientific papers address issues of diagnosis, course of disorder, and the processes of improvement.  He emphasizes the role of the person with mental disorder as a person in the struggle to recover, and understanding in depth the subjective experiences of people with severe disorder.  These experiences provide crucial data for understanding and treating the basic processes involved in disorder and recovery.

John Strauss represents the best in phenomenological research into severe mental disorders.  He does not turn his research subjects into the objects of study, but tries unstintingly to feel his way into their way of being, to imagine his own struggle to regain sanity, to imagine the moment-to-moment pain caused by these alienating afflictions.  Thus he sets an example not only as a prolific researcher but as a strong therapist.  Listening to his talks (he was the keynoter for the ISPS-US annual meeting in Philadelphia in 2004), we felt we had known him for a long time, a valued friend for years.  He let us into his thinking and feeling.  He described the time when at a large conference he had role-played a patient and found himself utterly deflated and sullen, unable to continue talking with the interviewer.  The interviewer had asked him about work, and John started telling about his new job at McDonalds.  The interviewer wasn’t interested in the details but moved on to the next question.  It took a while for John to realize that he became silent because he felt hurt and angry.  The few patients in the audience all responded that they, too, had had such experiences.  As the discussion evolved, John felt that he and the “other” patients were allied against the defensive professionals, and that there never was resolution.

John was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932.  He earned his B.A. degree with high honors at Swarthmore College , majoring in psychology (Swarthmore’s t-shirts read “A ‘B’ here would be an ‘A’ anywhere else.”)  He earned his M.D. at Yale and then was a special student with Jean Piaget in Geneva, Switzerland.  He then studied community psychiatry at the Washington School of Psychiatry.  He was a resident in medicine and then in psychiatry at the McLean Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, then worked at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1964 to 1972.  After a stint at the University of Rochester, he settled in at Yale, where he has worked since 1977.  Since 1985, he has served as Director of the Center for Studies of Prolonged Psychiatric Disorder, Connecticut Mental Health Center, New Haven, CT.

He was a Collaborating Investigator in the World Health Organization’s historic comparative research in schizophrenia, and has served on many scientific councils including the Veterans Administration on Rehabilitation Research in Mental Health, the Scientific Council of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) and the Society for Life History Research in Psychopathology.  He has received many grants from NIMH and other granting agencies, mostly on schizophrenia, including the processes of improvement.  He has never lost sight of the person struggling with the disorder.

John Strauss is worldly, living part of each year in France, traveling often to Scandinavia, his works translated into French, German, Norwegian and Japanese.  He says he has combined French phenomenology with American pragmatism in his views on effective research into schizophrenia.  He stresses that occupational rehabilitation is not an ancillary part of treatment but is a central part of the recovery process.  Patients often tell him, “When I work, I don’t hear voices.”  As people recover from psychosis, they talk about reintegration and the sense of finding out who they are; they talk about resolving conflicts about goals.  Relationships are central to the recovery process, not just relationships with professionals, but with their fellow humans in general.  He chides the profession, reminding us that recovering patients routinely say how rare it is to find a doctor who took them seriously.  He still is working over a patient’s challenge to him: “Why don’t you ever ask me what I do to help myself?”  He says, “This is a very heterogeneous disease with a very heterogeneous outcome.  There’s been a tendency to dehumanize and depersonalize schizophrenics, but that’s bad science, and bad for everyone involved.  I’ve interviewed many patients, and I can tell you that we’re talking here about people with goals who are struggling to make sense of life. I don’t know any basket cases.”

For over a decade, John has hosted writing groups in various countries, supporting people writing about their work with patients.  His one strict rule is that negative remarks are forbidden; he finds that the problems in the writing drop out by themselves.  This would be a great rule by which all therapists of psychosis should abide.

Ann-Louise S. Silver, M.D.