On February 12, 2014, Jeffrey Axelbank, Psy.D., stepped up to the podium to accept the Peterson Prize award in recognition for his efforts on behalf of professional psychology and the rights of mental health patients. “Jeff is a most worthy recipient of this award,” stated Dean Stanley Messer as he presented the plaque. The audience, a full crowd of GSAPP administrators, faculty, and students, along with members of the Axelbank family, agreed with resounding applause as they celebrated the achievements of this exceptional alumnus.
“Incredulous,” Jeff said in interview, when asked how he responded to the news of this award. “When I saw Stan’s name come up on my caller ID, I thought he must be calling to ask me to return the 8mm movie projector I’d borrowed from him! So I was really surprised when he delivered the news that I’d been awarded this honor. As I said in my speech, I still cannot really believe that I am in the same category as the previous recipients.”
A 1992 graduate of the Clinical Psychology program at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP), Jeff is a loyal alumnus who has consistently contributed to the GSAPP community. His long history of involvement traces back to his involvement as a student at GSAPP, when he served as a student representative to the Faculty Council and joined various professional student committees.
As a young professional, Jeff chose to remain involved with advocacy and related activities. Not long after he graduated, Jeff steered the effort to create the Middlesex County Association of Psychologists (MCAP) in 1996, becoming the first president. Since its inception, MCAP has grown to be a leading lobbying and advocacy group for psychology in the state of New Jersey, with extensive grass-roots organizing and advocacy work on behalf of mental health clients and their providers. Today MCAP has over 100 members.
But his work has gone beyond MCAP. Jeff also has done advocacy work with the New Jersey Psychological Association (NJPA). He was instrumental in creating the NJPA Project on the Crisis in Mental Health Insurance and served on the steering committee of the project. In addition, he created the NJPA Insurance Committee and is the current chair.
In perhaps one of his hallmark accomplishments, Jeff testified at a hearing of the New Jersey Senate Legislative Oversight Committee in July 2013 on ways in which mental health insurance companies were adversely affecting patients. The testimony was based on data culled from the NJPA Insurance Complaint Registry, a system that Jeff set up. In addition, he recently coordinated a team of psychologists to survey New Jersey psychologist Medicaid providers, and he delivered those results to the Director of NJ Medicaid.
These many contributions on behalf of the profession were honored by the NJPA in 2011 when it named Jeff the “Psychologist of the Year.” In giving him the award, the NJPA cited Jeff for “his advocacy on behalf of psychologists and their patients… and his extensive contributions to NJPA’s public relations campaign to stop harmful and unlawful insurance practices.” The NJPA’s citation went on to note that Jeff was “selected for his long-term leadership and advocacy related to practice issues at both local and state levels. Specifically, Dr. Axelbank has been a fierce defender of patient confidentiality, which is increasingly threatened by health insurance companies.”
Jeff has also helped local communities come together to address pressing problems. For instance, he helped one economically depressed New Jersey town address the issue of early childhood education using the “Future Search” planning process, which brings people from all walks of life together to find common ground and create change.
In a most remarkable way, as Dean Messer pointed out, even while Jeff has been making significant professional contributions to the field, he has remained a loyal alumnus and contributing member of the GSAPP community. In fact, he edited the Alumni Newsletter from 2005 to 2010, making the publication an important way for alumni to stay connected to GSAPP. Jeff also has been a field supervisor for GSAPP since 1995.
After Dr. Jeffrey Axelbank stepped up to accept his award, he engaged the room with a moving colloquium discussion, one that he promised to be both “inspiring and provocative.” In his opening remarks, Jeff began by sharing his personal experiences as a child patient in both behavioral and psychoanalytic treatment. He reflected on these two modalities in a thought-provoking and touching way, stating to the audience that “behavioral and psychodynamic change do not occur in isolation for one another.”
Jeff then shared the riveting and suspenseful story of his career journey from electrical engineer to psychologist. While working at a psychiatric halfway house, a “seed was planted” for his future career as a psychologist.
Jeff came to see the stability of the agency as a direct outgrowth of the multi-layered system and its group dynamics. It was in this context that he learned the principle of isomorphism—that is, the same dynamics tend to operate at all levels of an organization—and he applied this to his work in the halfway house.
In fact, Jeff’s interest in organizational analysis led him to choose psychology as his career. That was how Jeff found himself at GSAPP, working on a dissertation in organizational psychology that investigated preventing burnout of the staff of a psychiatric halfway house. “I was really happy here [at GSAPP],” Jeff stated in interview, “especially with the close camaraderie with my cohort.” He reports that he is still close friends with cohort members, even 20 years after graduation.
Jeff reflects on the various prominent faculty members with whom he interacted while at GSAPP. For three years, Jeff was in a supervision group led by Nancy McWilliams, who was a “huge influence” on his clinical training. Jeff’s dissertation chair was Dan Fishman, whom Jeff reports was a “real advocate” and “incredibly supportive of the organizational work I was doing.” Jeff also reflects on the skills he learned in John Kalafat’s Adult Learning and Training course, skills he uses when facilitating a workshop or a Future Search conference. He fondly remembers Morrie Goodman’s Group Therapy course, and now considers group therapy to be the “highlight” of his week. Jeff recalls Louis Sass’ Personality Assessment course, which “provided not only training in administering and interpreting tests, but was also a great way to integrate all the psychoanalytic theory.” Short-term Psychodynamic Therapy, taught by Seth Warren when Stan Messer was on Sabbatical, also provided Jeff with a useful integration of techniques and theories.
After he graduated with a degree in clinical psychology, Jeff obtained licensing hours at a local county-funded mental health clinic. In step with his original plans, he then opened a private practice and did organization consulting work. But, although Jeff had finally reached his goal, he was not finished yet. Typical of his striving for excellence, Jeff decided to enter a two-year program at the William Alanson White Institute in New York to build his knowledge in psychoanalytic approaches to organizations.
In his message to the audience, Jeff highlighted two areas of organizational psychology training that stand out to him. First, he spoke about the theoretical foundations of the William Alanson White Institute, based in object relations and group dynamics, focusing on roles, tasks, and authority, and the boundaries between these. In a phenomenon he humorously described as “magical,” there is an assumption that individual and group behaviors reflect something about the whole system, due to the unconscious connections between people in organizations.
The second highlight he shared featured his interest in group relations. Jeff elaborated on the whole-systems intervention method called Future Search, a method developed by Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, which allows you to “get the whole system in the room” over a series of small group and whole group meetings in a conference setting. By sharing personal experiences and providing vivid illustrations, Jeff managed to bring to life the Future Search conference within the format of his colloquium presentation.
At the end of his talk, Jeff delivered on his promise when he spoke about his “campaign” mantra: “Change is Possible: In People, Organizations . . . and Maybe Even in Psychology.” He presented a thought-provoking and relevant outline of the challenges facing us today, including the internship crisis, licensing regulations, and insurance reimbursement. In eloquent terms, Jeff shared his personal involvement in the “war on psychotherapy,” battling against insurance companies that seek “ever-increasing ways to limit mental health coverage.”
When asked about changes that he has seen in the field since his years at GSAPP, Jeff notes that insurance companies have become a much greater factor in the work we do as psychologists. He explained that the intrusion of insurance companies “requires more vigilance and advocacy on behalf of my patients.” Another change, Jeff adds, is that APA has become more bureaucratic, especially in the addition of new course requirements on students.
But it is not all bad. Jeff pointed out a positive change in the field, as “many clinicians see more clearly that no one theoretical orientation has all the answers, and are willing to be more flexible in their work.” He also made note of a more activist professional community, at least in the state of New Jersey. Finally, “the advent of social media, the internet, and other technologies have changed many aspects of our work. Doing sessions via video chat (Skype or FaceTime, for example) would have been impossible to even conceive when I was a student. Now, it is more and more common.”
In what turned out to be one of his keynote themes, Jeff boldly illustrated via case examples and metaphor of “radio frequencies” how a wide gamut of mental health approaches can be important in fostering change. Tension mounted as he spoke to the heart of each psychologist in the room: “What has been so shocking to me is how little attention is paid to the system level, the need to unify our field, look for common ground with other constituencies such as other professional groups and mental health consumer groups, and the lack of a desire to create a coalition of stakeholders that might have some power.”
In interview, Jeff shared his charge to current GSAPP students to not be discouraged by the “contagious catastrophizing” about our field. Rather than be overcome by the challenges, “I believe that the value of what we do is our biggest asset, and no one can take that away from us. If we are aggressive in advocating on behalf of our patients and ourselves, stay active in professional associations (national, state, and local), and do not sit idly by, then we will continue to have lots of opportunities to do the work we love.” Further, Jeff urges students to join NJPAGS as a great way to start getting involved in professional associations, as well as to reap membership benefits. His message to students is, “Keep on pushing!”
Dr. Jeffrey Axelbank’s many efforts on behalf of professional psychology and the rights of mental health patients make him a worthy recipient of this year’s Peterson Prize. The Peterson Prize award, named after GSAPP’s first dean, Donald Peterson, is given to “an alumna/alumnus who has made outstanding contributions to professional psychology. Such contributions may include innovations in service delivery, education or training, service to under-served populations, and other creative professional efforts that enhance the general welfare.”
By the end of the colloquium, a common feeling of admiration and pride unified family, administrators, faculty, and students in the room. In his efforts on behalf of professional psychology and the rights of mental health patients, Dr. Axelbank has been a most worthy recipient of the 2013 Peterson Prize and the accolades that will undoubtedly follow.
By: Chana Crystal