Psychagogy, The Forerunner of Psychotherapy?

I ran across this great little piece on a little known form of what would essentially be called supportive psychotherapy called “psychagogy.” It’s pronounced sike-uh-go-gee in my made up pronunciation key.

The article is written by historian Greg Eghigian, PhD and entiteld “Psychagogy: Psychotherapy’s Remarkably Resilient Predecessor,” and it was in the November 2012 issue of Psychiatric Times. You can register for free and read the full article at Psychiatric News, Features, Special Reports and Career Opportunities – Psychiatric Times.

Dr. Eghigian writes that it’s a shame that psychagogy as a psychological treatment for mental illness in ancient times has been all but forgotten while most historians of psychiatric illness and its treatment give much more time and space to describing the torture that passed for treatment including imprisonment and, opium, chains, and straitjackets.

The word “psychagogy” comes from ancient Greek philosophy and could be roughly translated as “guidance of the soul”, which should be distinguished from persuasion. It’s a combination of advice and emotional support. In 1920s there was even an International Institute for Psychagogy and Psychotherapy founded by a Swiss psychoanalyst.

It seems difficult to describe psychotherapy without referring to techniques and psychogogy has attached to it such methods as directive and nondirective conversation (the forerunner of motivational interviewing?), occupational therapy, and conflict resolution. Psychagogy practitioners drew heavily on social work as well as psychoanalysis to define their roles. Nowadays, features of psychagogy are still discernible in pastoral counseling.

Apart from discussing the techniques of psychagogy, I think it’s fair to say that the nonspecific aspects like the warmth, trustworthiness, and empathy of the psychagogue were at least as vital for patients’ healing even in ancient times.

Eghgian, G., PhD (2012) Psychagogy: Psychotherapy’s Remarkably Resilient Predecessor. Psychiatric Times 12

Dr. Eghgian is also co-editor of h-madness, a blog that follows the history of psychiatry,


Author: Jim Amos

Dr. James J. Amos is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the UI Carver College of Medicine at The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. Dr. Amos received a B. S. degree in Distributed Studies (Zoology, Chemistry, and Microbiology) in 1985 from Iowa State University and an M.D. from The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa in 1992. He completed his psychiatry residency, including a year as Chief Resident, in 1996 at the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Iowa. He has co-edited a practical book about consultation psychiatry with Dr. Robert G. Robinson entitled Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry. As a clinician educator, among Dr. Amos’s most treasured achievements is the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.

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