Watch “Critical Living,” a Stop-Motion Film Inspired by the 1960s Movement That Rejected Modern Ideas About Mental Illness

Along with Michel Fou­cault’s cri­tique of the med­ical mod­el of men­tal ill­ness, the work of Scot­tish psy­chi­a­trist R.D. Laing and oth­er influ­en­tial the­o­rists and crit­ics posed a seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge to the psy­chi­atric estab­lish­ment. Laing’s 1960 The Divid­ed Self: An Exis­ten­tial Study in San­i­ty and Mad­ness the­o­rized schiz­o­phre­nia as a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem, not a bio­log­i­cal one. Oth­er ear­ly works like Self and Oth­ers and Knots made Laing some­thing of a star in the 1960s and ear­ly 70s, though his star would fade once French the­o­ry began to take over the acad­e­my.

Glas­gow-born Laing is described as part of the so-called “anti-psy­chi­a­try movement”—a loose col­lec­tion of psy­chi­a­trists and char­ac­ters like L. Ron Hub­bard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari, Fou­cault, and Erv­ing Goff­man, pio­neer­ing soci­ol­o­gist and author of The Pre­sen­ta­tion of Self in Every­day Life. For his part, Laing did not deny the exis­tence of men­tal ill­ness, nor oppose treat­ment. But he ques­tioned the bio­log­i­cal basis of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders and opposed the pre­vail­ing chem­i­cal and elec­troshock cures. He was seen not as an antag­o­nist of psy­chi­a­try but as a “crit­i­cal psy­chi­a­trist,” con­tin­u­ing a tra­di­tion begun by Freud and Jung: “the alienist or ‘head shrinker’ as pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al,” as Duquesne University’s Daniel Burston writes.

Like many oth­er philo­soph­i­cal­ly-mind­ed intel­lec­tu­als in his field, Laing not only offered com­pelling alter­na­tive the­o­ries of men­tal ill­ness but also pio­neered alter­na­tive ther­a­pies. He was inspired by Exis­ten­tial­ism; the many hours he had spent “in padded cells with the men placed in his cus­tody” while appren­ticed in psy­chi­a­try in the British Army; and to a large extent by Fou­cault. (Laing edit­ed the first Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Foucault’s Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion.) Armed with the­o­ry and clin­i­cal expe­ri­ence, he co-found­ed the Philadel­phia Asso­ci­a­tion in 1965, an orga­ni­za­tion “cen­tred on a com­mu­nal approach to well­be­ing,” writes Aeon, “where peo­ple who are expe­ri­enc­ing acute men­tal dis­tress live togeth­er in a Philadel­phia Asso­ci­a­tion house, with rou­tine vis­its from ther­a­pists.”

Based not in the Penn­syl­va­nia city, but in Lon­don, the Philadel­phia Asso­ci­a­tion still operates—along with sev­er­al sim­i­lar orgs influ­enced by Laing’s vision of ther­a­peu­tic com­mu­ni­ties. In “Crit­i­cal Liv­ing,” the ani­mat­ed stop-motion film above, film­mak­er Alex Wid­dow­son excerpts inter­views with “a cur­rent house ther­a­pist, a for­mer house res­i­dent, and the UK author and cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an Mike Jay, to explore the think­ing behind the organization’s method­ol­o­gy and con­tex­tu­al­ize its lega­cy.” For Laing, men­tal ill­ness­es, even extreme psy­choses like schiz­o­phre­nia, are per­son­al strug­gles that can best be worked through in inter­per­son­al set­tings which elim­i­nate dis­tinc­tions between doc­tor and patient and abol­ish meth­ods Laing called “con­fronta­tion­al.”

Laing’s work began to be dis­cred­it­ed in the mid-sev­en­ties, as break­throughs in brain imag­ing pro­vid­ed neu­ro­log­i­cal evi­dence for main­stream psy­chi­atric the­o­ries, and as the cul­ture changed and left his the­o­ries behind. A friend of Tim­o­thy Leary, Ram Dass, and Allen Gins­berg, and an intel­lec­tu­al hero to many in the coun­ter­cul­ture, Laing began to move into stranger ter­ri­to­ry, hold­ing work­shops for “rebirthing” ther­a­pies and giv­ing peo­ple around him rea­son to doubt his own grasp on real­i­ty. Burston lists a num­ber of oth­er rea­sons his exper­i­ments with “ther­a­peu­tic com­mu­ni­ty” large­ly fell into obscu­ri­ty, includ­ing the sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment of time and effort required. “We want a quick fix: some­thing clean and cost-effec­tive, not messy and time con­sum­ing.”

But for many, Laing’s ideas of men­tal ill­ness as an exis­ten­tial problem—one which could be just as much a break­through as a breakdown—continue to res­onate, as do the many polit­i­cal and social cri­tiques he and his con­tem­po­raries raised. “In the sys­tem of psy­chi­a­try,” says one inter­vie­wee in the video above, “there’s a huge empha­sis on goals, and on an end­ing. In the more in-depth ther­a­pies, they’re more sen­si­tive to the fact that the psy­che can’t be rushed, it takes time.”

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

When Michel Fou­cault Tripped on Acid in Death Val­ley and Called It “The Great­est Expe­ri­ence of My Life” (1975)

How to Use Psy­che­del­ic Drugs to Improve Men­tal Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

Sun Ra Plays a Music Ther­a­py Gig at a Men­tal Hos­pi­tal; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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