Close Support

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

Froma Walsh has made her reputation and a career advocating that families can provide the strength to work through almost any trauma or adversity

By Charles Whitaker

Life in North Africa might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for a new approach to family therapy. Yet it was her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco that lay the groundwork for much of Froma Walsh's influential scholarship. Walsh, who has just retired from her joint appointment as SSA's Mose and Sylvia Firestone Professor and professor in the Department of Psychiatry, used ideas that took root in Morocco to develop a framework that altered the shape and practice of mental health approaches to the family. It is called resilience-oriented, family- centered collaborative mental health. And for more than 20 years, Walsh has been at the forefront of its advancement while on the faculty at SSA.

In 1964, armed with a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, Walsh joined the Peace Corps and was dispatched to North Africa along with 27 other young women. Their assignment was to work in the country's foyers feminine— traditional gathering places where young Muslim women are schooled in cooking and the art of intricate embroidery. They were told that by their example, the young Moroccans would yearn to emulate them and become "modernized."

However, Walsh and her fellow volunteers discovered that local families, with traditional values, did not see the Peace Corps crew— unmarried, living unchaperoned in a foreign country, and not particularly good at any of the domestic skills in which Moroccan women take pride—as fitting models for their daughters. "What was really so startling for me and other volunteers was that the United States would come up with such an ethnocentric program in the first place," Walsh says. "Fortunately they learned from our experience for projects that followed."

In her second year in Morocco, Walsh helped establish psychological evaluations for delinquent youth who had been incarcerated. She found, contrary to the American assumption that their families must have been to blame, that most families were loving and problems stemmed from harsh economic conditions, which drove boys into the streets and girls into prostitution.

Walsh marveled at how Moroccan families were bound together in kinship groups that provided emotional as well as financial support. The practicality and resilience of those groups made her question family normality in the United States, particularly the isolation of the suburban nuclear family after World War II. "In Morocco, I was struck by the diversity in family norms and patterns, and the richness of family life," she says. "It struck me that the taken-for-granted assumptions about family normality in our culture were really less functional than the ones in Morocco."

When Walsh returned to the States and began pursuing a master's degree in social work, she couldn't help but notice the emphasis on dysfunction in families. "I found the heavy focus on psychopathology in mental health training distressing," she says. "I learned it all, but it made me more curious about what mental health is, beyond treating mental illness. How can we as mental health professionals facilitate and support positive mental health?"

A treatment model with broad interdisciplinary applications, resilience-oriented, family-centered therapy is a systemic approach that focuses on the family's core strengths, rather than the source of its weaknesses. Walsh believes that nearly all extended families contain a reservoir of strength and resources that can enable them to overcome trauma. The therapist's job includes identifying "islands of competence" within the family. In the first chapter of her book Strengthening Family Resilience, Walsh writes:

"A family resilience framework fundamentally alters traditional deficit-based perspectives. Instead of focusing on how families have failed, we redirect our attention to how they can succeed. Rather than giving up on troubled families and salvaging individual survivors, we can draw out the best in families, building on key processes to encourage both individual and family growth."

"Froma understood early on that we had been discussing pathology and dysfunctionality in families without a clear sense of what it meant to have a good-functioning family situation," says Celia Falicov, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego and, like Walsh, an alumna of University of Chicago's doctoral program in human development. "She was really a pioneer in helping us see that every family has normal aspects, even a family in crises. But we were so focused on dysfunction, we had no framework for what normal was."

Mental health professionals attempting to tap into resilience must avoid looking at families through an ethnocentric lens, Walsh notes. To help the family make the connections that will aid in its recovery, therapists have to understand and appreciate the cultural context in which the family resides and be sensitive to ethnic, religious, and cultural values that may be helpful as the family attempts to repair.

Walsh says the resilience framework actually dovetails quite a bit with the recent developments in the medical field that view the body not as isolated pieces, but as interconnected parts of a whole that has natural immune potential and the ability to heal most wounds. "In terms of mental health," she says, "the research shows that individuals who have suffered major traumatic experiences can and do recover and are able to live well, work well, love well, play well." When teaching, Walsh often uses an example that Maya Angelou has given about her own life. In a very difficult childhood, shuttled between relatives in St. Louis, Arkansas, and California, Angelou found a stable home with her grandmother and her maternal "Uncle Willie," who constantly encouraged Angelou to study and believed in her potential, even though he was poor, disabled, and uneducated himself. "Every family has an Uncle Willie," Walsh tells her class. "So rather than just pluck children out of families, we have to work to find those Uncle Willies."

Walsh has traveled around the world, doing training and consultation in resilience-oriented family therapy and community mental health services. Many of the 10 books she has either written or edited (sometimes in collaboration) have been translated into foreign languages and she has presented papers, delivered keynote addresses and participated in panels in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Korea, and Japan. In 2002, for example, she was asked to go to Germany to share her resilience approach with U.S. military chaplains who help military families who have loved ones in war zones.

She has also helped developing countries train and establish a cadre of mental health professionals. At the invitation of the United States Agency for International Development and the government of Morocco, she returned to the country to design the curriculum and program evaluation for the first school of social work established in that country. In December, she will travel to Taiwan to teach.

"She has been one of the major influences on the field," says Monica McGoldrick, director of the Multicultural Family Institute in Highland Park, N.J., and Walsh's collaborator on a number of books and papers, including Living Beyond Loss. "A lot had been said about resilience from an individual perspective, but Froma is the one who said we have to look at the threads and connections. She challenged us to look at families in a more positive way, and that really helped us understand resilience contextually."

Walsh readily acknowledges that she is not the first to apply the resilience model to mental health. "One of Froma's tremendous strengths is her integrative approach to what already existed," says Falicov. "It wasn't a matter of her saying, 'I have the truth and I'm creating a new school of family therapy.' She said, 'How can we put together what we already know and bring in some new ways of looking at therapy?'"

Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Froma was the only child of a mother and father who encountered adversity throughout their lives, and she says their perseverance taught her how strong families can be. Her parents met in Hyde Park, in the midst of the Depression. Her mother was estranged from her own family, and her father dealt with the harsh consequences of a childhood disability. Her father managed a struggling gas station and her mother, a gifted musician, taught piano lessons to make ends meet. As the family was starting to get on its feet, a fire swept through the apartment building where they lived when Walsh was just two, and they were left homeless for a time.

Throughout their hardships, however, Walsh says "my parents loved me well. In our neighborhood, where most children went to work in the factories after high school, they believed in my potential and encouraged me to go to college. Because of their support, I always knew I would make something of my life." When Walsh was 14, the family moved to California. At UC Berkeley she assumed she would have a career as a neuroscientist. But having found a new goal during her time in the Peace Corps, Walsh entered the MSW program at Smith College when she returned from Morocco. In her first year field placement at the psychiatric inpatient unit at Yale, she found her passion in family therapy, and during clinical work at the Yale Child Study Center had the opportunity to present cases to visiting scholars Anna Freud and Erik Erikson.

Walsh moved to Chicago in 1971 to be the family studies coordinator in a schizophrenia research program at Michael Reese Hospital. The variety she found in her "normal control group" sparked her curiosity about so-called "normal families," and this interest led her to the University of Chicago's doctoral program in human development. "So where my clinical work had been focused on the influences in mal-adaptation, my doctoral work looked at what contributed to positive growth, and that was the most important scholarly influence," she says.

After a faculty appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and the Family Institute at Northwestern, Walsh joined the faculty of SSA in 1982. During her time at the School, she has served as president of the American Family Therapy Academy and editor of the Journal of Marital & Family Therapy. Along with her husband, John Rolland, a psychiatrist who specializes in the psycho-social complications and challenges associated with illness or disability, Walsh co-directs The Chicago Center for Family Health, a nonprofit institute affiliated with the University that provides advanced training in resilience-oriented family therapy for community-based professionals and agencies interested in using the model to strengthen vulnerable families.

At SSA, Walsh says, "Above all, I love the teaching. U of C students are bright and curious. So when I think about retirement from teaching, it is reluctantly." "Froma has been an incredible asset to SSA and especially to the students who have taken her courses," says Sharon Berlin, SSA's Helen Ross Professor Emerita. "As a colleague, I have enjoyed Froma's incisive intellect and her wonderful sense of humor. These two assets make an unbeatable combination. I always loved sitting next to her at meetings because she brought a kind of spark, freshness, and humorous irreverence to deliberations."

Retirement from SSA does not mean slowing down for Walsh. She will expand her consulting and training of mental health professionals internationally. She is working on a new edition of her book Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy and has plans to begin research into the relational significance of companion animals. "I want to draw from all the emerging research on the roles that pets play in family dynamics—including issues of divorce and custody—and their intimate relationship with people who live alone or need assistance. It's a whole area that has barely received attention in the mental health field."

So while her time at SSA draws to a close, she presses on in other areas of scholarly interest. And while she says she would love to continue teaching part time, she has plenty to occupy her. "All of my scholarly work will continue—at full speed," she says. "And it will continue until I drop."