With Helm Stierlin, German-speaking psychiatry and psychotherapy lost one of its most prominent personalities. He was one of the most influential among the people who had spread family therapy and systemic therapy methods around the world since the 1970s. The “Institute for Psychoanalytic Basic Research and Family Therapy” at Heidelberg University, which he founded in 1974, has become one of the most important centers in Europe. This effect was based on the one hand on Stierlin's publications, which were also understandable for laypeople, on the other hand, by organizing large international congresses in the German-speaking field among psychotherapists, his institute initiated a paradigm shift from psychoanalysis to systems theory.

All of this has to do with Stierlin's personality and career.

After a short time as an anti-aircraft helper, he began to study medicine and philosophy after the war.

His philosophical teacher was Karl Jaspers.

Stierlin completed a psychoanalytic training, worked in Switzerland and for more than seventeen years in the United States.

There he worked in schizophrenia research at the National Institute of Mental Health and came into close contact with family research.

When he was called to Heidelberg, he was infected by American pragmatism without losing his interest in existential philosophical questions and had already gained an international scientific reputation.

What do I care about third-party funding?

It is still astonishing that he then achieved such a broad impact with his institute. Because it contradicts the logic of today's university careers in Germany. The academic staff of his institute consisted only of Stierlin himself, a senior physician and an assistant, and he was not even a full professor, but head of a small department of the psychosomatic clinic. In principle, he did not care about third-party funding. Nevertheless, a lot of research was carried out and published internationally.

Stierlin was rather shy, showed no know-it-all when advocating his concepts, but was also never defensive and did not try to conform to a mainstream. He was not satisfied with applying and passing on established knowledge; he wanted to explore uncharted territory. He was both: humble and immodest, ambitious and unpretentious. When someone presented new ideas or methods, he paid attention not to the status of the person concerned, but to the usefulness and meaningfulness of what was being said; it was the factual dimension in which new things fascinated him. And he wasn't afraid to turn against orthodoxy when it struck him as nonsensical.

He could afford this obstinacy because not only did all the internationally recognized researchers come and go in his institute, but also his professional competence was never an issue.

He was always respected by those who disagreed with him.

All of this enabled him to do unorthodox things safely.

Communication without hierarchies

Another secret of success was his management style. He only hired people who could do something he couldn't (such as organizing congresses). In doing so, he ensured a wide range of variation in his team; everyone who then had to or was allowed to work together would never have chosen one another. But in the cooperation, Stierlin succeeded in making their differences fruitful because communication was free of hierarchies. His appreciation for the employees was "merciless", that is, he never (!) Offered a word of criticism to them - but occasionally looked unhappy when something did not go as he would have liked. The result was that when working as a team, everyone had all the ideas and insights they thought they had,could bring into communication unfiltered and, in total, took out more than he had put in. An extremely creative “team spirit” emerged. It goes without saying that Stierlin was also one of the co-shareholders of Carl Auer Verlag, which his employees founded in 1989.

Helm Stierlin's literary activities concerned not only technical issues, but he also wrote about Nietzsche, Hölderlin, Hitler and, apparently out of the ordinary, the libretto for a ballet by Johann Kresnik. This breadth of interest and his openness made Stierlin a role model for younger colleagues who did not want to conform to a narrow biological-psychiatric or behind-the-couch role model. His death is undoubtedly a great loss for all psychotherapy and psychiatry. As it has only now become known, Helm Stierlin died on September 9th at the age of 95.

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