Loren H. Crabtree Jr., pioneering psychiatrist and co-founder of Project Transition, has died at 88

First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

“Almost everything is intense in adolescence,” he said. “There were a lot of young people who were casualties of something and who needed help.”

by Gary Miles
Published Aug. 2, 2023, 5:37 p.m. ET

Dr. Crabtree said many teens told him, “If I stopped being angry, I’d be scared to death.”

Loren H. Crabtree Jr., 88, formerly of Chalfont, Bucks County, pioneering psychiatrist, cofounder of Project Transition, and retired director of the Adolescent Treatment Center at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital and the Young Adult Program at the Horsham Clinic, died Saturday, July 15, of organ failure and frailty syndrome at his home in Buffalo, N.Y.

For nearly half a century, Dr. Crabtree practiced a groundbreaking style of comprehensive counseling for psychiatric patients and their families in all kinds of situations. He was especially interested in helping people reintegrate into work and school, and easing the transition from adolescence to adulthood for troubled teens and preteens.

In founding Project Transition in Chalfont in 1982, Dr. Crabtree and colleague Paul Keisling sought to help people “live a better life beyond the hospital.” Too many mental health providers at the time, Dr. Crabtree told The Inquirer in 2014, focused on illness intervention rather than helping a patient become “whole and thrive.”

“What we’re trying to do is help these young adults learn to depend not on their parents but on themselves and their peers,” he said in 1988. “We want parents to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that, if they die, their kids can make it.”

As founder and director of the program for young adults and specialty services at the Horsham Clinic from 1977 to 1987, Dr. Crabtree worked with learning-disabled children, young drug and alcohol abusers, victims of child abuse, and those with psychosomatic and psychiatric illnesses. A new and important part of that program, he told The Inquirer in 1983, was to include adults in the process.

“The idea of educating parents and treating them like adults who want to learn and change is revolutionary,” he said. “If a community doesn’t have a service like this they learn to do without it.”

He also developed and directed the Adolescent Treatment Center at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital from 1967 to 1977 and was a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson Medical College.

Dr. Crabtree won several awards for his work, including the 2010 Robert Jones Award from the Philadelphia Psychiatric Society for “outstanding dedication to improving the lives of the seriously mentally ill.” He also won the 2014 Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In presenting the 2014 award, James W. Jordan Jr., executive director of NAMI Pennsylvania, said Dr. Crabtree “is a pioneer and a visionary.”

Dr. Crabtree (rear, standing)grew up in Elizabeth, NJ and was valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School.

He was interviewed often by The Inquirer, lectured widely about mental health issues, and wrote dozens of papers about dysfunction in psychiatric patients, the structure of families with autistic children, and related topics.

“He was a larger-than-life visionary who fought for justice and was devoted to the underdog,” his family said in a tribute. “He left a legacy of hope and healing in the community.”

“When you’re mentally ill, you are lonely. … I prescribe four units of [emotional] human nourishment.”
Dr. Crabtree

Loren Hunter Crabtree Jr. was born May 11, 1935, in Elizabeth, N.J. He was valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School and graduated with honors and bachelor’s degrees in biophysics and French literature from Yale University.

He studied for a year in Paris as an undergraduate, earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961, and served two years in the Air Force counseling family members of Viet Nam War soldiers.

Dr. Crabtree enjoyed spending time with his family.

He married Suzanne Snavely, and they had sons Luke and Lance, and daughter Liz. After a divorce, he married fellow doctor Barbara Cram in 1981, and they had daughter Christina and son Gordon.

Dr. Crabtree was an avid flower gardener and woodworker. He often refinished his tools and liked to discuss sports, psychology, neuroscience, and theology. He and his wife moved to Buffalo four years ago.

“He was passionate and committed to his work,” his wife said. “He was intellectual and interested in ideas.” His family said: “We will continue to uphold the values he held dear, ensuring that his vision for a compassionate and supportive society remains alive.”

Dr. Crabtree and his wife Barbara enjoyed traveling and talking about all sorts of topics.

In addition to his wife, children, and former wife, Dr. Crabtree is survived by 10 grandchildren, a sister, and other relatives. Two sisters died earlier.

A celebration of his life was held Friday, July 28.

Donations in his name may be made to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Pennsylvania chapter, 105 Braunlich Dr., McKnight Plaza, Suite 200, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15237; and the National Audubon Society, Attn: Donations, 222 Varick St., 7th Floor, N.Y., N.Y. 10014.