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.”