For counseling psychologist, work brings an emotional rebirth

Aug. 28, 2001

One day, when Bruce Wampold was 5 years old, he happily went off to play in the woods near his house in Bellevue, Wash., as he often loved to do. But that day turned out to be tragically different for Wampold and reverberated throughout much of his life.

It was the last time he ever saw his mother alive. Before he returned home from the woods, she was taken to the hospital, where she died of cancer days later.

Wampold had never been told about his mother's cancer, and her death was never talked about in his home after she was gone. "Well, it was the '50s," he says with a shrug. "We didn't talk about a lot of things."

His family was full of high achievers. His father was a graduate of Harvard Law School, one of his brothers became a physician and another became a lawyer. Wampold himself is a professor of counseling psychology at UW-Madison and the author of a controversial new book about something that he says he could have used as a child: psychotherapy.

"I didn't receive any kind of counseling growing up," he says. "It was a period of complete denial. My brothers and I each assumed the others were doing fine after my mother's death, and we were the only one keeping this sadness inside."

Growing up, Wampold would wander in those woods for hours, feeling vaguely lost — and terrified of being lost. "At one social event, I had a panic attack when I couldn't find my father and stepmother," he says. "I feared their disappearing without warning, as my mother had."

He was a good student in school and especially loved mathematics. It was precise and beautiful in its complexity and would never, ever go away.

Wampold earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics magna cum laude at the University of Washington and for five years taught math and coached wrestling at a private prep school in Honolulu. He found himself bored by the repetitious teaching, but intrigued by the students and what motivated them.

So he changed fields and earned a doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and then taught at the universities of Utah and Oregon before joining UW-Madison in 1991.

All the while, however, from the death of his mother to the death of his father in 1993, he felt that something was deeply awry in his life. "My emotional life seemed repressed, but close to the surface," he says.

Then, on the day of his father's funeral in Seattle, the dam broke. At the cemetery where he buried his father, he found his mother's gravestone, which he had not visited since her funeral — and was suddenly engulfed in grief.

"It was like she had died the day before," he says. "I felt what I should have felt 40 years before. That day I started a journey of understanding of how the loss of my mother had affected every relationship that I had had with a woman and of where my anxiety and depression were rooted."

Wampold next spent four years working with a psychotherapist and discovering that psychotherapy did more than remove symptoms. "Because of my therapy, I can now be present emotionally for my kids in a way that my father never could," he says.

Partly because of his experience as a therapy client, Wampold began to feel the gnawing of a suspicion about what he was teaching on psychotherapy: "Many clinical scientists believe that certain psychological "disorders' call for certain treatments. But the more I reviewed the research on psychotherapy's effectiveness, the more I realized that wasn't true."

He review the studies and made a startling discovery: Specific treatments or techniques account for less than 1 percent of the variance in improvement among psychotherapy patients. In other words, it's the therapist that counts, not the therapy.

"A person with a need for psychotherapy should seek the most competent therapist possible who offers a type of therapy that accords with his or her view of the world," says Wampold.

He contends that research does not support the current trend among clinical scientists and HMOs to "medicalize" psychotherapy by identifying treatments for particular disorders. That ignores not only the variable of the therapist's skill, but also the client's culture and desire to improve, as well as the relationship between therapist and client.

He has presented his findings in a new book, "The Great Psychotherapy Debate." Wampold pulls no punches: "Medicine, which includes the pharmaceutical companies, is a bold gorilla that will crush the warm, fuzzy psychotherapy teddy bear. For example, you are infinitely more likely to see TV ads for Prozac or Zoloft to treat depression than for psychotherapy."

The book fuses two sides of Wampold: mathematician and humanist. "I'm telling the humanists in this debate over psychotherapy to hold their heads up high," he says, "because the evidence supports them."

The debate is not an erudite exercise among academicians, he says, but a struggle with real-life consequences. "Studies show that psychotherapy really works," says Wampold. He insists that if good therapists are recognized by HMOs for what they can do, without being pushed into the a-pill-for-a-pain medical model, then their clients will benefit.

Wampold knows those benefits in his head and in his heart: "With the support of those who love and have loved me, psychotherapy helped me see the wound from the inside out, to grieve and to heal."

It was a bone-deep balm for the boy inside the man who lost his mother one day after playing in the woods.