Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949)

Harry Stack Sullivan

Harry Stack Sullivan was a 20th century psychiatrist who stressed the importance of interpersonal connections and developed interpersonal psychoanalysis

Professional Life

Harry Stack Sullivan was born in Norwich, New York, on February 21, 1892. He was raised in relative isolation on a rural farm near Smyrna, New York, with no siblings and few playmates. Sullivan graduated from high school at age 16 and spent his first year of college at Cornell University. In 1911, he transferred to the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery and earned his MD in 1917.

Sullivan began practicing medicine after graduation, and in 1921, he worked under William Alanson White as a neuropsychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC. The following year, he was employed at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Maryland, where he became director of clinical research in 1925. There, he established a ward for young male schizophrenics. Sullivan’s treatments were innovative and experimental and a great success.

Sullivan focused his attention on interpersonal relationships and in particular, the effect of loneliness on mental health. Sullivan contributed much to the field of psychology through his teachings, his writings, and his leadership. He was a co-founder of the William Alanson White Institute and also was instrumental in launching the first edition of the journal Psychiatry.

Contribution to Psychology

Much of Sullivan's work centered on understanding interpersonal relationships, and his research became the basis for a field of psychology known as interpersonal psychoanalysis. Sullivan's interpersonal psychoanalysis suggests that the way people interact with others could provide valuable clues into their mental health and that mental health disorders may stem from distressing interpersonal interactions.

Sullivan steadfastly tried to avoid stigmatizing mental health patients, preferring to refer to mental health disorders as “problems in living.” This catchphrase became the preferred method of referring to mental health disorders among those involved in the anti-psychiatry movement.

Sullivan coined the term "self system" to describe the three components of a person, much like Sigmund Freud’s conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Sullivan identified the active self, or the waking, conscious self; the eccentric self, which is the source of a person’s identity and personality; and the state of sleep, or the dormant self.

Sullivan developed the concept of “developmental epochs” to help explain the development of personality across the lifespan. Like many other theorists of his time, his theory is stage-based. Sullivan often emphasized the pivotal importance of friendship and connectedness, and his stage-based theory sees social skills as a bridge to greater development and enrichment: 

  • Infancy – Sullivan acknowledged that the developmental process begins early in life, though he gave this phase less importance than Freud did.
  • Childhood, ages 1-5 – During this stage of development, speech forms the framework upon which subsequent learning is built. 
  • Juvenile, ages 6-8 – During this period, a wide variety of playmates and access to healthy socialization and social skills become increasingly important. 
  • Preadolescence, ages 9-12 – In preadolescence, the ability to form close friendships assists the child in developing self-esteem and serves as practice for later relationships. 
  • Early adolescence, ages 13-17 – Friendship takes on a sexual dimension, and the focus on relationship with peers shifts toward romantic interests. An adolescent's sense of self-worth is based in large part upon his or her perceived sexual attractiveness. 
  • Late adolescence, ages 18–early 20s – The young adult struggles with conflicts between parental control and the desire to form an independent identity, while beginning to focus on both romance and friendship.
  • Adulthood – The primary struggles of adulthood include family, financial security, and a rewarding career. Socialization continues to play a role in adult development. 

Books by Harry Stack Sullivan

  • Personal Psychopathology (1933/1973)
  • Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (1947/1966)
  • The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (1953)
  • The Psychiatric Interview (1954)
  • Schizophrenia as a Human Process (1962)


  1. Harry Stack Sullivan. (1974). Dictionary of American Biography. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  2. Kam-shing, Y. I. P. (2002). Sullivan's approach to inner psychotic experiences: A case illustration. Clinical Social Work Journal,30(3), 245-263. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/227737127?accountid=1229

Last Update: 07-07-2015

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