R. D. Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry Movement

R.D. Laing. Photo: Robert E. Haraldsen

R.D. Laing. Photo: Robert E. Haraldsen

On August 23, 1989, Scottish psychiatrist Ronald David Laing passed away. Laing is noted for his alternative approach to the treatment of schizophrenia. His first book, The Divided Self, was an attempt to explain schizophrenia by using existentialist philosophy to vividly portray the inner world of a schizophrenic, which Laing presented as an attempt to live in an unlivable situation. Laing’s views on the causes and treatment of serious mental dysfunction, greatly influenced by existential philosophy, ran counter to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day by taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder.

Ronald David Laing studied medicine at Glasgow University from 1945 to 1951. Next to his formal studies, Laing also continued his philosophical education, especially phenomenology and existentialism. In the early 1950s, Laing moved his enthusiasm towards neurology and psychiatry and he worked for 6 months at the West of Scotland Neurosurgical Unit in nearby Killearn. The position was followed by a two-year post as psychiatrist at the British Army as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps. There, it is believed, Laing found an interest in communicating with mentally distressed people.

R.D. Laing became the youngest consultant in the country at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital. It has been suggested that the Glasgow approach to mental illness, and many of Laing’s ideas, were influenced by the work of David Henderson, who in turn credited the American Adolf Meyer. At the Tavistock Institute in London, R. D. Laing went on to train on a grant. The institute was widely known as a centre for the study and practice of psychotherapy.

Laing became known as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper. Challenging  psychiatric diagnosis itself, Laing argued that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour or conduct, and examination and ancillary tests that traditionally precede the diagnosis of viable pathologies occurred after the diagnosis of mental disorder. Hence, according to Laing, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct, but treated biologically.

R.D. Laing believed that schizophrenia was “a theory not a fact”. According to the psychiatrist, the models of genetically inherited schizophrenia being promoted by biologically based psychiatry were not accepted by leading medical geneticists. Further, according to Laing, diagnosis of mental illness did not follow a traditional medical model, which probably led him to question the use of medication such as antipsychotics by psychiatry.

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