Psychiatrist known for quick wit, therapy insights

Dr. Frank Pittman helped break new ground in the field of psychiatric treatment.

When institutionalization of the mentally ill was considered standard procedure, he led a treatment team at the University of Colorado Medical School that showed many patients could successfully stay at home given a healthy family environment.

This 1964-68 study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health, demonstrated that vulnerable persons could adapt at home as long as their families learned how to deal with crises, said his wife of 52 years, Betsy Pittman.

When other therapists routinely avoided taking sides in family or spousal conflicts, he took a stand and urged individuals to take responsibility for their actions.

“I admired Frank’s candor in dealing with his patients. He didn’t mind being politically incorrect,” said Dr. John Lochridge, a Smyrna psychiatrist. “He also was a staunch supporter of marriage, and his devotion to Betsy, his office manager, was a good example for the couples he saw.”

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When other marriage counselors urged a cheating spouse not to reveal an affair, Dr. Pittman insisted on a honest admission of guilt as the first step toward a couple’s rebuilding of trust and intimacy.

“He created a treatment model for infidelity that was radical for its time,” said Gerry Lane, an Atlanta marriage and family therapist. “Frank was simply a genius at understanding human motivations.”

Dr. Frank Smith Pittman III, 77, died Saturday at his Atlanta home of complications of cancer. The family plans a private memorial for him but will receive visitors between 5 and 7 p.m. Monday at H.M. Patterson & Son, Spring Hill.

Dr. Pittman was a productive author, writing numerous magazine and journal articles, plus four books titled “Turning Points: Treating Families in Transition and Crisis,” “Private Lies: Infidelity and Betrayal of Intimacy,” “Man Enough: Fathers and Sons and the Search for Masculinity” and “Grow Up: How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult.”

Psychology Today, a magazine for which he wrote “Ask Dr. Frank,” a regular advice column, called him “America’s Funniest Psychiatrist.” He also was a film critic for Psychotherapy Networker for 25 years, “one of the best writers the therapy world ever produced,” said Dr. Richard Simon, a Washington (D.C.) clinical psychologist and editor of the Networker publication. “I consider him psychotherapy’s Mark Twain,” he added.

Dr. Pittman once told a Psychotherapy.net interviewer that he loved movies and advised his patients to watch them and study how film characters arrive at decisions.

He even earned a credit as a script adviser on a major Hollywood movie. In 1997 comic actor and writer John Cleese told the New York Times “we got a lot of help from my friend Frank Pittman” in creating two main characters for the movie “Fierce Creatures.” The two characters, an ultra-rich father and son both played by Kevin Kline, were based on a composite of tycoons whom Dr. Pittman had treated over the years, Cleese said.

Also surviving are two daughters, Dr. Tina Wagers of Boulder, Colo., and Dr. Virginia Pistilli of Portola, Calif.; a son, Frank S. Pittman IV of Atlanta; a sister, Joanna Fox of Cashiers, N.C., and seven grandchildren.

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