Monday, 23 January 2012 00:35

Harry Stack Sullivan: Men Of Ideas

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Sullivan believed that interpersonal issues contribute to the etiology of psychosis. Psychotics, as he say them, are the products of families who did not know how to relate to their children in such a manner that they felt accepted and loved, and a society that does not do the same. He, therefore, concentrated on improving peoples interpersonal skills, so as to get them to relate to each other in a manner that all felt related to hence whole and healthy.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Herbert Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) was an American psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. Initially, he trained in Freudian psychoanalysis but like most Americans found a way to make it practical rather than dwell on theoretical considerations that have no relevance in the real world.

(Why are Americans practical and averse to theoretical matters? William James discussed this phenomenon in his Pragmatism. John Dewey also explored why the American character is practical rather than speculative. The pursuit of the here and now, practicalism, however, has its downside. One can think of the problems of Behaviorism, the sole contribution that Americans made to psychological discourse. Behaviorism is practical but it is also superficial. In their aversion to theoretical considerations Americans can be superficial and annoying to those of us who enjoy theoretical, albeit speculative discourse. Hegel’s phenomenology of mind may be speculative but it is an excellent exercise in abstract thinking, a welcome relief to the drabness of America’s practical philosophies.)

Sullivan built on his upbringing to appreciate the need to have accepting people in ones life. As a child he felt rejected by other children and felt lonely. He was an Irish child in the world of White Anglo Saxon Protestant, WASP, children, and was not accepted by them. He felt lonely. From that childhood loneliness he theorized that those who tend to have mental health issues are those who are not connected to other human beings.

He speculated on the origin of loneliness. May be it has to do with poor interpersonal skills. May be it had to do with sexual issues.

Sullivan was a homosexual; during his days such sex orientation was taboo and was the cause for immediate peer rejection.

May be as a result off his homosexuality he feared other adolescents rejection. Perhaps, he reasoned thus: if I come close to people and they get to know the real me, a homosexual, they would reject me. Therefore, to avoid social rejection he kept away from other people and as a result felt very lonely. Even when he was running the various psychiatric outfits in the Washington DC area he felt cut off from his fellow human beings.

This lonely man sought ways to improve his and peoples social skills, to develop good interpersonal skills so as to be able to relate to other people and feel connected to them, feel part of the group hence feel whole rather than separated and anxious.

While Sullivan was writing useful stuff on interpersonal issues he was living with a fifteen year old boy (apparently, he was a pedophile, too)! No wonder he felt cut off from the human race; he was living an amoral life style. Whether these people want to accept it or not, the fact is that human beings are moral creatures and those who engage in certain amoral behavior, even if society approve it, as they are asking society to approve it, have existential issues to reckon with. Pedophiles and homosexuals have serious existential issues that flippant psychoanalysis would not help them extricate themselves from. The basis of peace and happiness is doing the right thing. The right thing is, as Alfred Adler pointed out, love for all humanity and working for all humanity, not pouncing on other people’s children for perverted sex gratification.

Harry Stack Sullivan‘s main contribution to psychology is his recognition of the critical role if interpersonal skills. However, it is doubtful that neurosis and or psychosis were caused by poor interpersonal skills alone.

It is true that those with mental disorders tend to have deficient social skills and could learn assertiveness to improve their social skills but having done that they are not going to be healed of their neurosis and or psychosis.

Neurosis and psychosis has a lot to do with the individual’s inherited body. Biological factors play a critical role in the etiology of all mental disorders.

For example, children who are shy tend to have inherited a tendency to shyness. Jerome Kagan’s study show beyond reasonable doubt that shyness is an inherited property, not a learned variable, not due to poor social skills. Shy children are shy from day one of their lives. As research is increasingly demonstrating they tend to have quick somatic arousal (to fear and other stimuli).  This is perhaps because they inherited a fear arousing mechanism that is too efficient, too good for their own good. All of us react with fear when threatened, but some people react with quicker fear to stimuli that most people ignore. Shy children inherited bodies that are too quick to arousal. Perhaps this is due to biochemical imbalances; say, too much excitatory neurochemicals, such as noradrenalin and or too little inhibitory neurochemicals, such as GABA.

I am not here to settle controversial issues in neuro-psychology; what is beyond reasonable doubt, however, is that individuals differ in their rate and speed of somatic arousal. Those with quick arousal to threatening stimuli tend to develop fearful tendencies (anxiety disorder aka neurosis).

Those who are psychotic probably inherited biological constitutions that dispose to their disorder.

The relevant point is that Sullivan did not explain the origin of neurosis or psychosis with his interpersonal theory of the origin of mental disorder. He is only relevant in the sense that he reminds us all to strive to develop good social skills and make friends, for it is awful to be lonely. Nevertheless, loneliness is not the cause of mental disorders.

There really is not much else to say about this American confused psychiatrist.


Sullivan, Harry Stack. (1968) eds. Helen Swick Perry and M. L. Gawel. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176