You might expect a psychologist, especially the chairman of the American Psychotherapy Association, to be a rich mine of angst and turmoil. But in this respect, Michael Baer, who has a practice in Venice, turns out to be a great disappointment. He admits to having a happy childhood, and when asked how he defines happiness, he says promptly, "Being with Teresa, my wife."
Ask him about his greatest fears, and he says cheerfully, "I don't have any. I used to be afraid of heights, but I kept climbing ladders and roofs and things until I cured myself of it."
An unfulfilled dream, at least?
"No," he says, sounding a little apologetic. "I'm really very dull and very happy."
Pitiful, but you can't blame the man. After all, at 63, Baer has achieved just about everything he has reached for professionally. In addition to chairing the APA, he has built up successful clinical and neuropsychological practices in New York and Florida, published more than 70 articles, is vice chair for the American College of Forensic Examiners and teaches at Argosy University in Sarasota. He's won awards from two of the three universities he's attended, and received the Republican National Congressional Committee's Physician of the Year award in 2003 and 2004.
In a red and olive tropical shirt, khakis and sandals, Baer looks less like a nationally renowned doctor and more like a friendly snowbird as he shows a visitor around his Fountain Square office on Venice Island. He has the kind of earnest manner and modulated voice that encourages confidences, referring to a physician neighbor as a "sweet guy" and calling out to another neighbor who is carrying a box of tiles downstairs, "Why are you carrying that when I could be?"
Mild though he may appear, Baer is unafraid to share his firm convictions on issues from abortion to overmedication. A recipient of the 2005 Ronald Reagan gold medal for good citizenship, he was supposed to have dinner with President Bush at the White House in March but declined the invitation, because, he says, "I'm mad at the President."
He's also considering declining an award from his undergrad alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, because of South Dakota's recent ban on abortions, even in the case of rape and incest.
"I'm not for or against abortion," Baer explains. "But until we men have babies, that's a woman's decision." He pauses and continues wryly, "I'll probably sound like a raving liberal."
When it comes to the American Psychotherapy Association, however, he simply sounds like an enthusiast. One of the group's main thrusts right now is to lobby at state and national levels for a patient's bill of rights and parity with physical health.
"There is no mental-health system," says Baer. "Mental health should be basic."
The lack of such care may seem ironic in a country that has enshrined a right to happiness in its constitution and absorbed therapy into its consciousness, but much of what's out there is only for those who can pay, says Baer. He says many homeless people are on the streets today because they were kicked out of large state hospitals that were closed in the late 1970s and '80s.
He's also concerned that more children than ever before are being diagnosed with depression and at a younger age.
"Children become miniature adults earlier," says Baer. They absorb adult information and issues from TV, the Internet and their environment that they don't yet have the developmental or emotional skills to cope with. And while today's psychotropic drugs are more effective then ever, especially when used in tandem with psychotherapy, Baer says sometimes drugs are overprescribed for children, whose brains are not fully developed until between the ages of 21 and 25.
Adults, too, are more stressed than ever. Says Baer, "We shop at night. Banks are open longer. People go to classes online. The world is flying, compared to 30 years ago. That means far more stress, and we know that stress triggers problems with mental health. Even in problems with a biological basis, stress is a trigger for psychopathologies."
There have been good changes, too, he says. Psychotherapy is now shorter, more collaborative, more directive and more active. Rather than simply talking out issues with therapists indefinitely, doctors and patients today work as a team, using techniques such as biofeedback and imagery to come up with ways to solve their problems. Doctors assign homework and measure patients' progress. This change is partly because of insurance companies limiting sessions, Baer says, but it has definitely made physicians more accountable.
Baer grew up in New York City and Washington, D.C., and has lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and Montreal, but he fell in love with Venice and its laid-back lifestyle when he came to visit his father, who often vacationed here (and who, at 95, still visits his son here). When he's not seeing patients, testifying at a trial or speaking around the country for one of the organizations he heads, he volunteers at the Beacon House, a center for the mentally ill, and at the Mental Health Center of Sarasota, in Venice. And when he's not doing any of that, he squeezes in time for a quick game of tennis or a sail.
It's no wonder he's a contented man.
"I have the best woman in the world in my life, we live in Venice, and I can't imagine a world any better," says Baer.
ON THE COUCH
WITH MICHAEL BAER
The chair of the American Psychotherapy Association obliges with some word associations.
Quality you most admire in others: Courage to stand up for what they believe. Best thing you learned from your parents (retired May Company Department Stores executive, and homemaker and co-founder of Washington Children's Hospital): To be honest and sincere. Best thing you learned from your patients: How to be grateful for what I have. Dr. Phil: Very expensive. Two years ago, I called to ask him to speak to us at the APA. He wanted $100,000 to come and speak to a nonprofit. I said to him, "You want $100,000 a day to come and speak?" He said, "No, Mike, $100,000 an hour." Easiest way to improve your marriage: Pay attention to your spouse. It's what we don't do with each other. We don't listen. Mantra to live by: Be yourself. Be honest. Be somebody that people want to be around. Top tip for parents of teens: Be a parent, not a friend. Most parents want to be a friend, be popular, get along with the kid. That's not our job. Our job is to set an example, be a role model, teach wrong from right. A perfect day: A day when you get to play golf and tennis and sail, followed by a wonderful dinner somewhere. The 90-year-old you: I hope still working, still volunteering and enjoying life and giving back to the community.