Sunday, 16 June 2013

R D Laing pops up again

“Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.”  R D Laing, 1927 - 1989

Yesterday morning I heard the Scottish psychiatrist’s son, Adrian Laing, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme (about 30 minutes in if you listen again). He recalled life with his father, a bittersweet combination of experiences also documented recently in The Daily Telegraph, and then outlined his participation in one of Laing’s more unconventional therapies – a “rebirthing”.

The story reminded me of a comment in Laura’s recent post on Thomas Szasz, where a reader made the link between Szasz and Laing. The Anti-Psychiatry page on Wikipedia pulls them both into the same camp, but as Laura pointed out – Szasz was not anti-psychiatry, it was the coercive nature of psychiatry as practised that he opposed. Nevertheless, the two psychiatrists are often lumped together in the political debate over psychiatry, and in pushing the view  “that psychiatric treatments are ultimately more damaging than helpful to patients”.

The debate, which was particularly vocal in the 60s and 70s, is regarded by some to have been “of its time” and no longer relevant. After all, mainstream psychiatry (relying heavily on drugs in its attempts to treat what are regarded as medical problems) seems to rule the roost, certainly in the developed world. However, it appears as if the debate is gaining renewed momentum of late...

I unexpectedly discovered a copy of Laing’s “The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise” on a bookshelf here at home. (It’s not mine – G is also more well-read than me!) Yesterday after listening to Adrian I read the chapter on “The Schizophrenic Experience.” Here are a couple of, what I believe, are relevant quotes:

“It seems to us that without exception the experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation.” (Following research studies made by Laing and two colleagues. His emphasis).

“’Schizophrenia’ is a diagnosis, a label applied by some people to others. This does not prove that the labelled person is subject to an essentially pathological process, of unknown nature and origin, going on in his or her body.”

Dr Joanna Moncrieff, a practising psychiatrist and critic of pharmaceutical drugs, said that “I was reading Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing when I was at medical school – they were the only ray of interest I could find in the subject area.With like-minded colleagues she set up the Critical Psychiatry Network which aims to debate issues such as “scepticism towards the evidence base, the biological basis to psychiatry, the efficacy of biological treatments, and an objection to the emphasis on coercion and medicalisation and the issues of social control.”

So... the debate does seem to be very much out there and current. What do you think?

PS: You can watch an intriguing 1989 Channel  4 documentary on R D Laing
here. It’s 1.5 hours long (but absolutely worth it), so make sure you are sitting comfortably...


  1. Dear Jackie - really interesting, thank you for continuing this important debate. It is a debate that I raised today with the Mental Health Strategy Lead for Welsh Government at a meeting I attended, so I will be forwarding her some of the posts that we have on the subject.

    I was just send a new radio link to an interview with Gary Greenberg, a psychotherapist and author of Manufacturing Depression and The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. Again, relevant to this debate. It is 5 minutes and can be accessed via this Madness Radio link - in case anyone is interested in listening

    1. Hi Laura - thanks for the link to Madness Radio - I really enjoyed the interview with Gary Greenberg.

      It would be very interesting to know what the Mental Health Strategy Lead for Welsh Government thinks about all this... if you get any feedback let us know!

      I can't keep up with all the links to this debate at the moment. Another one worth checking out is the Mad in America site. I've been watching What is Mental Illness Today? where Professor Nikolas Rose debates the issues around the role of diagnosis and diagnostic manuals.

  2. Hello,
    I recently read the attached link which I thought might be interesting:

    1. Hi Anonymous
      Thanks for your comment. Yes - I actually discovered the Discursive of Tunbridge Wells blog yesterday and I agree there is a really relevant post on there - "Am I still Bi-Polar: emerging from the shadow of DSM." In fact, I enjoyed reading the blog so much I've added it as a favourite on our blog - see right hand column. There's really so much interesting and relevant stuff out there - keep debating!

  3. The debates are certainly current but the terms are very difficult to get to grips with - let alone use in daily conversation!
    A short paper of Laing's, which was read to the First International Congress of Social Psychiatry in 1964 (entitled 'What is Schizophrenia') discusses a split between 'inner' and 'outer' worlds- themsleves problematic but useful terms. We do seem to lack terminology still for the outward relevance of an inner world (or worlds) - and can undervalue those who are immersed in internal explorations.
    To highlight the problem, just last week I was asked directly by a would-be employer/business associate what I thought caused some of the 'diffculties' I'd had. Quite how you answer that in terms which are both acceptable to lay people and not overly personal or too intimate is quite a challenge!

    1. Hi Philroy
      I agree with you on all counts! I've been working in the field of mental health for nearly four years now and still, every day, I feel I am faced with yet more new words or terms to try and understand.
      In our role as the Powys Mental Health Information Service we sometimes have to "translate" press releases or details of new schemes set up to help people into plain English before they can be added to our website or ebulletin. Jargon continues to be a huge barrier.
      I don't know that Professor Rose has a plain English version of his academic lecture available however!
      Thanks for commenting.


      Just saw this article - it seems to make a good summary of or introduction to Laing.

    3. Thanks Phil - interesting article. Laura