William Glasser, innovative psychiatrist, dies at 88


Dr. William Glasser at his Los Angeles home in 1984. (Los Angeles Times)

William Glasser, a psychiatrist, education reform advocate and bestselling author whose unorthodox emphasis on personal responsibility for mental problems sold millions of books, caught the attention of educators and earned him an international following, died Aug. 23 at his Los Angeles home. He was 88.

He had pneumonia that led to respiratory failure, his son, Martin Glasser, said.

Dr. Glasser was not a typical psychiatrist. He did not prescribe psychiatric drugs to patients, did not dwell on their past behaviors or subconscious thoughts, and largely ignored the standard diagnoses of mental disorders adopted by his profession. At the risk of sounding like a simpleton, which fit some critics’ views of him, he often said there was really only one problem that sent people into therapy. “They are unhappy,” he said.

In his 1965 book “Reality Therapy,” he said that unhappiness usually stems from a person’s inability to fulfill two basic needs: “the need to love and be loved, and the need to feel that we are worthwhile to ourselves and to others.”

Dr. Glasser counseled patients to take responsibility for fulfilling those needs in a positive manner and believed that even schizophrenics and manic-depressives could benefit from his approach.

“Reality Therapy” sold about 1.5 million copies, according to HarperCollins executive editor Hugh Van Dusen, and provided an intellectual basis for the school reform program Dr. Glasser described in his next book, “Schools Without Failure” (1969).

In that book, he called for building emotional ties between students and educators, making lessons relevant and abolishing grades below A and B, with an overall goal of helping students attain competence.

There are 17 schools in the United States and three in Australia, Ireland and Slovenia that have declared themselves Glasser Quality Schools with faculties trained by instructors from the William Glasser Institute based in Country Club Hills, Ill.

The extent of Dr. Glasser’s influence in education is difficult to gauge, but in 1971 the Los Angeles Times reported that 600 schools and 8,900 teachers across the country were using some of his ideas.

“A lot of schools are using the ideas without going through the official training,” said Kaye Mentley, who heads the 1,300-student, Glasser-inspired public charter school Grand Traverse Academy in Michigan. She credits the school’s high academic achievement, trusting relationships and lack of discipline problems to Dr. Glasser’s philosophy.

His progressive approach drew the ire of traditionalists, such as Charles J. Sykes, author of “Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America’s Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add” (1995). Dr. Glasser’s “Schools Without Failure,” Sykes wrote, was “a veritable handbook for schools that would fail over the next two-and-a-half decades.”

Dr. Glasser’s interest in psychology stemmed from an eagerness to deal with his own intensely shy nature. The son of a watch and clock repairman, he was born in Cleveland on May 11, 1925, and earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1945 from what is now Case Western Reserve University.

After a brief, unhappy stint as an engineer, he returned to the university to study psychology. At the urging of a dean, he applied to medical school to become a psychiatrist and earned a medical degree from Case Western in 1953.

He completed his medical residency under UCLA supervision at the Veterans Administration hospital in West Los Angeles, where he irritated his superiors with his anti-Freudian tendencies.

“What they taught, in effect, was that you aren’t responsible for your miserable problems because you are the victim of factors and circumstances beyond your control,” Dr. Glasser told the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “My thrust was that patients have to be worked with as if they have choices to make. My question is always, ‘What are you going to do about your life, beginning today?’ ”

At the end of his residency, he said, “I was thrown off the staff.”

In his next job as staff psychiatrist at a girls’ reform school in Ventura, Calif., Dr. Glasser taught troubled girls to take charge of their own behavior. Many of the case histories wound up in “Reality Therapy.”

Dr. Glasser wrote more than 20 books, including “The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion” (1990) and “Warning, Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health” (2003).

His wife, Carleen Glasser, was his co-author on three books, including “Getting Together and Staying Together: Solving the Mystery of Marriage” (2000). He also wrote several books with his first wife, Naomi Glasser, who died in 1992.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

— Los Angeles Times

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