Home » Uncategorized » R.D. Laing and the Politics of Madness By Louise M. Hart 26 years after his death a biopic has recently been released about the life of, “acid psychiatrist,” and counter cultural guru, R. D. Laing. Whilst a range of theorists, writers and even some of his former patients have attempted to discredit Laing’s theories and practice, his star continues to shine. Supporting this is the primacy and currency of discourse about the man and his world view. Ronald David Laing (1927-1989) is most famous for challenging mainstream psychiatry. His legacy, also, includes his much wider attack on the dominant model of scientific reason and western post-enlightenment thinking. Laing uproots traditional belief systems and rather, reconfigures psychiatry in a framework that is both socio-political and philosophic. Influenced by existential philosophy, Laing argues that the diagnosis of mental disorder, or madness (his preferred term) should not be based on patients’ presentation or behaviour. He believes that treating behaviour medically is false epistemology. Accordingly, a patient’s mental health is no longer a signifier of conduct but a consequence of how their beliefs impact and shape their behaviour. Laing famously writes about the experience of breakdown/breakthrough as a regenerative process. He encourages patients’ personal growth and claims that a psychotic break does not have to induce psychical deterioration. Rather, he perceives the process as a transformative experience comparable with a shamanic journey and argues that a positive outcome should involve a freer and more humanistic treatment of patients. In 1965 he opened the now notorious, Kingsley Hall as an alternative to traditional psychiatric hospitals, which promote a medical model approach to mental health. At Kingsley Hall patients were allowed to act out their psychosis free of tranquilising, anti-psychotic medication and offered in contrast, illegal and hallucinogenic drugs. Laing recognised that anti-psychotic medication sedated and dulled the mind to the more metaphysical symptoms associated with psychosis. He believed in contrast that hallucinogens expanded consciousness and promoted the free expression of thought, feeling and behaviour. Laing proposed that his revolutionary approach to mental illness, backed by the use of hallucinogenic drugs constituted a more effective treatment option for those affected by psychosis than the traditional medicalized approach. The Laingian model promised the possibility of healing through spiritual and psychological renewal. At best the Kingsley Hall experiment produced mixed results. At least 2 patients died jumping from the rooftop. But, it represented an important landmark in the aetiology of mental health theory and practice and opened up the debate about the use of medication. Today’s mental health recovery movement is one of the more progressive social change movements and arguably would not exist without Laing’s influence. It is progressive because it challenges not only mainstream psychiatry, but the ideological basis of received thinking in contemporary western society about the normative principle. Laing and recovery model advocates argue that the concept of normality is the prerequisite for the construct of madness. Consequently, were we to eradicate the notion of normality, madness, also, would be extinguished.