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Mr. White emphasized the need to “elevate the person you’re working with, instead of elevating the t

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April 28, 2008
Michael White, 59, Dies; Used Stories as Therapy

Michael White, a social worker and family therapist who developed an innovative and highly practical technique using storytelling to help patients of all ages deal with childhood traumas, died on April 4 in San Diego. He was 59.

The cause was a heart attack, said a spokeswoman from the Dulwich Centre, a counseling service in Adelaide, Australia, where Mr. White had practiced family therapy since the early 1980s.

With a colleague, David Epston, Mr. White explored the power of shaping personal accounts and memories in facing the lingering effects of childhood inadequacies and other obstacles in patients’ lives. Their technique was explained in an influential 1990 book, “Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends,” and has since become known as narrative therapy.

The technique is based in part on having a patient externalize a condition or problem — like obesity, loss of a parent or resentment of a sibling — and come up with stories and metaphors to re-evaluate the situation, usually from a more positive perspective. Narrative therapy has been used successfully to help bed-wetting children distance themselves from shame and anxiety, so they can consider their condition more objectively and not necessarily as a permanent character flaw.

Some practitioners encourage patients to write stories, letters, essays or poems and to recall actual events in which they vanquished a concern or responded to a family member with cathartic satisfaction.

A practitioner of narrative therapy, Dr. Gene Combs, an associate professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, said Mr. White emphasized the need to “elevate the person you’re working with, instead of elevating the therapist,” so that discussions with patients, alone or in family groups, can ensure that individuals are not viewed as “generic carriers of problems, or only as pathologies and not people.”

The eventual goal of the technique is to help a patient recognize personal strengths and supportive relationships that can aid in surmounting a given problem, leading to what Dr. Combs termed the “preferred stories” of success and achievement in the patient’s life.

Michael Kingsley White was born in Adelaide. He worked briefly as a probation and welfare officer before earning an undergraduate degree in social work from the University of South Australia in 1979.

He then became a psychiatric social worker at Adelaide Children’s Hospital before starting his private practice at the Dulwich Centre. He further refined his ideas in a book published last year, “Maps of Narrative Practice.” Mr. White often traveled abroad to present case histories and refinements of narrative theory and was on a similar journey in San Diego when he died.

Although narrative therapy has had relevance in treating anorexia, school-related anxiety and problems common in children and young adults, its uses continue to broaden. Beginning in the 1990s, Mr. White applied it to Aboriginal communities in New South Wales, and found that storytelling could be an incisive tool in helping tribesmen come to terms with dispossession and forced relocation from their ancestral lands.