Ronald David Laing (October 7, 1927 - August 23, 1989), was a psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness and particularly the experience of psychosis. He is noted for his views, influenced by existential philosophy, on the causes and treatment of mental illness, which went against the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time. He is often associatied with the anti-psychiatry movement although, like many of his contemporaries also critical of psychiatry, he himself rejected this label.
Laing was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow, Scotland and went on to study medicine at Glasgow University. He spent several years as an army psychiatrist, where he found he had a particular talent for communicating with mentally distressed people. In 1953 Laing left the army and later went to study at the Tavistock Clinic in London, widely known as a centre for the study and practice of psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalysis).
Laing was troubled by his own demons, suffering both from alcoholism and clinical depression though periods of his life. He died of a heart attack whilst playing tennis at the age of 62.
Laing's view of madness
Laing argued that the strange behaviour and seemingly confused speech of people undergoing a psychotic episode were ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns, often in situations where this was not possible or not permitted. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of madness. He argued that individuals can often be put in impossible situations, where they are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers, leading to a 'lose-lose situation' and immense mental distress for the individuals concerned. Madness was therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and transformative experience.
This was in stark contrast to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time (and is still contrary to the majority opinion of mainstream psychiatry). Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had previously pronounced, in his seminal work General Psychopathology, that the content of madness (and particularly of delusions) were 'un-understandable', and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behaviour and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an unusual personal symbolism. According to Laing, if a therapist can better understand the person they can begin to make sense of the symbolism of their madness, and therefore start addressing the concerns which are the root cause of their distress.
It is notable that Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, madness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveller could return from the journey with important insights, and may even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result.
Laing is often regarded as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper, Thomas Szasz and Michael Foucault. However, like many of his contempories, labelling him as 'anti-psychiatry' is a caricature of his stated views. Laing never denied the value of treating mental distress, but simply wanted to challege the core values of contemporary psychiatry which considered (and some would say still considers) mental illness as primarily a biological phenomenon of no intrinsic value.
Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140135375
Laing, R.D. (1961) Self and Others. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140134670
Laing, R.D. & Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness, and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140211578
Laing, R.D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140134867
Books on R.D. Laing
Clay, J. (1996) R.D. Laing: A Divided Self. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0340590491