Steven Reiss


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Steven Reiss (1947–2016) was an American psychologist who contributed original ideas, new assessment methods, and influential research studies to four topics in psychology: anxiety disorders, developmental disabilities, intrinsic motivation, and the psychology of religion. He was born in New York City in 1947 and was educated at Dartmouth College, Yale University, and Harvard University. 

At Dartmouth, he was one of 16 members of his undergraduate class to be awarded Senior Fellow status. He served as a tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (1972–1991) and at Ohio State University (1991–2008), where for 16 years, he directed the developmental disabilities center at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Reiss died on 28 October 2016 at age 69.

Reiss led the research team that discovered anxiety sensitivity, eventually overcoming fierce opposition to his idea that the fear of fear arises from beliefs about the consequences of anxiety and not just from Pavlovian associations with panic attacks. In the 1990s, anxiety sensitivity became one of the most widely studied and important topics in clinical psychology, with more than 1,800 published studies. 

It changed how therapists evaluate and treat Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Panic Disorder, disorders that affect 10 million Americans. Therapists now treat anxiety sensitivity cognitions they had erroneously dismissed as unimportant. Anxiety sensitivity sometimes predicts anxiety disorders before clinical symptoms can be observed, creating new prevention research opportunities. 

Reiss introduced the term “anxiety sensitivity,” defined the construct in terms of an information processing model, mentored graduate students who went on to study the construct, and wrote the Anxiety Sensitivity Index, which is widely used in the assessment of anxiety disorders. Reiss was an authority on "dual diagnosis," or the co-occurrence of mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

 About one million Americans have a dual diagnosis, but in severe form, the prevalence is closer to about 200,000 people, many of whom also have autism. In 1980 Reiss founded an outpatient clinic for dual diagnosis in the Chicago metropolitan area, one of the nation's first outpatient programs for dual diagnosis. Mental health professionals cited the success of this clinic to help justify and fund hundreds of new psychiatric services in North America and Europe.

Reiss introduced the term "diagnostic overshadowing" to refer to the tendency to overlook the mental health needs of people with developmental disabilities. In 1987, he organized the first international conference on the mental health aspects of intellectual disabilities. The National Institute of Mental Health director convened an ad hoc panel to fast-track funding for Reiss's conference. In 1987, Reiss also published the Reiss Screen for Maladaptive Behavior, which became the leading method in North America for screening for dual diagnosis.

The tool greatly reduced the cost of identifying service needs for many thousands of people with a dual diagnosis. This was followed by a children's version, the Reiss Scales, in 1994. In 1998 Reiss and Ohio State University professor Michael Aman convened a panel of 105 physicians and scientists from ten nations to write a consensus handbook of best practices to reduce the abuse of psychiatric overmedication.

Reiss was among the scientists, therapists, and advocates who replaced custodial institutional care with community supports and appropriate education. Although his efforts were concentrated on dual diagnosis, he also served on official classification and terminology committees, advocated nationally to lessen discrimination for organ transplant operations, and helped build the Human Development Institute in Chicago. 

He received the 2008 Distinguished Research Award from the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), the 2006 Frank J. Menolascino Award for Career Research from the National Association on Dual Diagnosis, the 1991 Distinguished Award for Career Research from the Arc of the United States, and the 1987 Distinguished Services Award from AAIDD.

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