At Freudian school, an attempt to enlarge the couch

Tucked away along a quiet stretch of Beacon Street just outside Washington Square is a deceptively small building that appears to be residential. On the inside, though, are sprawling classrooms, an oversized conference room, hallways enough to get lost in -- and many of those proverbial couches, to recline on while undergoing therapy.

The Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis requires its students to go through their own psychoanalysis before starting such work on patients. And couches are part of the process.

Put simply, which it isn't, psychoanalysis delves into analyzing unconscious impulses and anxieties as a form of therapy. It was pioneered by Sigmund Freud.

The school offers one of the few accredited campus-based graduate programs in the country for a masters and doctorate in psychoanalysis, according to school president Dena Reed. It is also unusual in that it does not require incoming students to have a medical, social work, or psychology background, she said. A formal education, including a bachelor's degree is required, as is a demonstrated interest in the field and a willingness to go through personal psychoanalysis.

The school was founded in 1971 in Boston and moved to Brookline several years later, where it has largely blended into the neighborhood. But these days, the school is working to raise its visibility and bring psychoanalysis to a more diverse population.

Therapy of all kinds is more often utilized by the elite -- people with the time and money to go through such sessions, according to Reed. So the school has made adjustments, including establishing fees on a sliding scale for patients, as well as requiring only once-a-week sessions rather than five times a week, which is common with psychotherapy.

"We're trying to make it more available," says Jane Snyder, dean of graduate studies. Snyder says the fee for a patient to see one of the students at the therapy center averages $20 a session, while private practitioners charge $100 or more per session and require multiple sessions each week. The students practitioners are advanced, have a master's degree, and have gone through significant training, she says.

The school has started to take its therapy methods into the Boston public schools, too. This fall, students from the school started offering a type of therapy to elementary and middle schoolers. Reed says traditional psychotherapy isn't entirely appropriate for those ages, but certain principles of psychotherapy can be applied to the therapy provided.

Student therapists have also been sent to the Brookline Health Care Center, a skilled nursing facility with 120 patients.

"Any time someone comes in to talk to the patients it's a beneficial thing," says Wayne Pultman, administrator at the health care center. Students from the school provide therapy for three or four patients each semester, says Pultman. "It's very therapeutic for both the patients and the students," he says. "It's a learning experience for everyone."

The school has applied to be accredited for a doctoral program at its Brookline main campus, which is currently available only at its Dummerston, Vt., location. Snyder says about 90 of the 124 students enrolled at the school are at the Brookline campus.

The school goes beyond modern psychoanalysis to offer an interdisciplinary doctoral program combining psychoanalysis, sociology, and neuroscience in the study of violence and conflict. Students study such situations as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, female gangs, and whether Holocaust survivors pass on trauma to their descendants.

Being a student involves traditional classroom work, lectures, field studies, and working with patients.

In addition to that, though, is the couch. All students must be prepared to go through their own psychoanalysis, which isn't always fun.

"You have to do it so you can understand when you're sitting with a patient," says Paula Berman, who has been working on her certificate for more than two years at the Brookline campus. "You have to experience that vulnerability so that you can understand how to help others. . . . It's hard." 

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