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The Erikson Institute at 30: Its Legacy and Future

Aaron M. Beatty, MA|
July 3, 2024
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Since 1994, the Erikson Institute (EI) has been the formal home for education and research at the Austen Riggs Center, an unusual and important undertaking for a small, free-standing, non-profit psychiatric hospital and residential treatment center that helps patients take charge of their lives.
Named for renowned psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, who was on the Riggs staff from 1951-1960 and continued as a consultant until 1973. The Erikson Institute is the home of a broad spectrum of offerings that aim to learn from others’ perspectives and impart knowledge from the clinical learning that happens in its residential program in a mutual effort to understand and respond to problems individuals, groups, and society face. “I have nothing to offer except a way of looking at things,” Erikson wrote in Childhood and Society in 1950, the book in which he laid out eight stages of individual human development influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors throughout the lifespan.
Erik Erikson with Austen Riggs Fellows, circa 1980s.
Origins of the EI
While there has always been a home for education and research at the Austen Riggs Center, the actual origins of the EI trace back to the early-1980s when then Board President Mary Carswell helped to shape and develop an idea for the Erikson Scholar Program. The program, which formally began in 1985, was meant to both honor former staff member Erik Erikson and to develop psychoanalytic knowledge by inviting senior clinicians and academicians to bring their projects into dialogue with the clinical work at Riggs. 
Austen Riggs Board President Mary Carswell, circa 1980s
Dr. M. Gerard (Jerry) Fromm, who would go on to become one of the first directors of the EI, served as the chairperson of the Erikson Scholar search committee. The success of the Erikson Scholar Program led the Center to consider creating an institute. And so, under then medical director Dr. Edward Shapiro’s leadership, consultations, steering committees, and visioning began to formulate what would eventually become the Erikson Institute for Education and Research in 1994.
M. Gerard Fromm, PhD, circa 1987
As current Director of the EI, Dr. Jane Tillman sees it, “I think Dr. Shapiro creating the Erikson Institute was a way to say, ‘we want a place for education and research that takes the learning of the clinical work and translates it into a wider field of understanding, while protecting it from the pressures of the clinical work.’” Providing a protected space for Fellowship training and learning was also an essential task in the founding of the Erikson Institute.
Austen Riggs Senior Staff (Dr. Ed Shapiro center) circa 1990
The Early Years of the EI 
Dr. Stuart Twemlow was hired as the EI’s first director and during his tenure, he had a particular interest in bringing a psychological approach to school systems around issues of bullying, victimization, and bystander effects. When Twemlow left in 2002, Fromm was asked to take up the role of acting director, which he did until his appointment became official in May of 2002.
Fromm recalls, “At its most basic, the EI’s purpose is to bring a psychoanalytic perspective into dialogue about the larger problems in the world; its task is applied psychoanalysis. My tenure was about getting through the birth pains of the EI and fostering its growth. My approach was to let a thousand flowers bloom. If people were interested in something, we did it. There were many initiatives and great memories, along with the task, over time, of developing some of these projects into programs.” 
Study groups formed, an annual creativity seminar was established, an annual fall conference was formalized, various programs and projects were piloted, and the Fellowship program and research were integrated into the EI. “It was not hard to generate interest,” said Fromm. “The EI was a big tent for ideas and interests.”
Then, a few years into Fromm’s tenure, Evelyn Stefansson Nef, an author, lecturer, patron of the arts, philanthropist, Arctic explorer, and psychotherapist, endowed the directorship of the EI, helping to solidify its place at Riggs and its ability to operate.
Reflecting on what the EI means to him, Fromm remarked, “One of our Erikson scholars made a comment after his time at Riggs. He was a philosopher and he said, ‘You know, we all know the theory of psychoanalysis in academia. Those of us interested in this work know the theory backwards and forwards. What Riggs provides is the place where the theoretical rubber meets the clinical road.’ That notion has always been at the heart of the Erikson Institute.” 
Recent History of the EI 
In 2013, Tillman succeeded Fromm as the director of the Erikson Institute. Over the past decade the EI has continued to grow and evolve to now include a formal archive of the Center’s more than 100-year history that is now open to researchers, a growing on-site library that can be accessed by mental health professionals, as well as efforts targeted at advocacy for access to care. In addition, research has taken on a larger role with the hiring of full-time Director of Research Dr. Katie Lewis. One of the main functions of the Erikson Institute is the 4-year Fellowship program in psychoanalysis for psychologists and psychiatrists, which under Tillman’s leadership was accredited by the Accreditation Council for Psychoanalytic Education (ACPEinc) in 2014 and reaccredited in 2021.
But one of the biggest changes to the EI came in 2020 as a response to the COVID pandemic, which necessitated a move from in-person to online for all its public-facing educational offerings. Lectures that previously saw a few dozen local in-person attendees are now seeing hundreds of online registrants (average of 350+ per event) from around the globe. Tillman remarked, “We've been focused on being a leader in psychoanalytic education and providing equity in the education space for nearly all of our programs. We offer free CE/CME credits, which are often very expensive for people, making it possible for students and professionals interested in psychoanalysis to learn from experts in the field.” Today, Riggs hosts a library of over 50 on-demand courses on topics ranging from psychotherapy research and mental health parity to psychosis, psychopharmacology, and psychedelics. In addition, there are live virtual Grand Rounds, Friday Night Guest Lectures, and other special events throughout the year.
Tillman is quick to point out that none of the success of the EI would be possible without the right people in place to support the Institute or without the invaluable support of Medical Director/CEO Dr. Eric Plakun, the Board of Trustees, and numerous scholars, grantors, and friends of Riggs. One recent high-water mark was in 2021 when the EI was named the recipient of The Sigourney Award, a major psychoanalytic award.
When asked what the EI means to her, Tillman responded, “It means a chance to be a leader in the field of psychoanalytic education and research, a chance to bring a perspective on human suffering that we care about deeply in our clinical work, understanding that it has historical meaning, cultural meaning, meanings within family systems and political systems, and other institutional systems.” She went on to say “The Erikson Institute means to me a place to study all of that and be curious about that, about human nature, about identity, about community, certainly about conflict. I'm trying to think about what leads to human suffering and what leads to human flourishing.”
The Future of the EI
The formation, development, and endurance of the EI over the past 30 years is a testament to the dedication, expertise, and generosity of so many individuals. It has taken a community of staff, scholars, and friends to codify and invigorate the research, education, and advocacy efforts of the Austen Riggs Center. Where the EI goes from here will be built both upon tradition and what has proven successful as well as an openness and curiosity to explore new avenues to remain a leading national and international provider of psychoanalytic education and clinical training as well as psychoanalytic research and a voice of advocacy for critical issues related to psychiatric care.
Fromm hopes to engage the next generation of psychoanalytic thinkers and advocates, noting, “It [the EI] is a social responsibility.” While current director Tillman says, “I see the EI continuing to stand for something in the world that is very important and that has to do with how to understand identity and community, both individual problems and how they are related to history and the systems in which people are embedded. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to really stand for that, firmly, because there's a lot going on in the world that merits a psychoanalytic and a psychodynamic curiosity.”