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Madness as a Break-Through: R.D. Laing

Updated on September 24, 2012


At the end of the 19th century, it was coming to view that mental illness was different in degree from the psychological suffering of normal people. Freud suggested that neurosis and normality are part of the same scale. With this in play, anyone is capable of succumbing to mental disturbance in extreme circumstances.

Biology and Behavior

Like Freud, Laing thought against the fundamental values of psychiatry. He rejected the focus on mental illness as a biological factor and highlighted the significance of the social, cultural, and familial influences that shape personal experience. He never denied the grim reality of mental illness, his perspective was in contrast to the accepted medical basis and practice of psychiatry. Laing's work doubts the validity of psychiatric diagnosis saying the accepted process of diagnosing mental disorders does not follow the traditional medical model. Doctors provide examinations and tests to diagnose physical illness, where psychiatric diagnosis is based on behavior. In his perspective, there is also a problem in diagnosing mental illness based on conduct, but treating it biologically with drugs. If a diagnosis is based on behavior, then so should the treatment. He argues that drugs hinder the ability to think and result with the natural process of true recovery.


Laing's main work focuses on the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia and on explaining it to the normal society. This is a serious mental disorder characterized by severe distruptions in psychological functioning. He says schizophrenia is not inherited yet is an understandable reaction to unlivable situations. He used Gregory Bateson's theory called "double bind" which focused on a person is put into situations where he or she faces conflicting expectations. Using that theory, he believed resulting in extreme mental distress.

Illness as a Breakthrough

Laing was revolutionary in observing the abnormal behavior and confused speech of schizophrenics as valid proof of distress. In his eyes, psychotic episodes represent attempts to communicate concerns that should be seen as cathartic and transformative experiences that lead to personal insights. Laing accepted that these episodes are difficult to comprehend yet claims this is because the patients are only focusing on the language of personal symbolism that is only meaningful from within. Laing's psychotherapy is drug-free and tries to make sense of a patient's symbolism by listening in as an attentive and empathetic spirit. This theory is based on the belief that people are healthy in their natural state and that mental illness is an attempt to return to that healthy state.

R.D. Laing

Ronald David Laing, born in Scotland, studying medicine at Glasgow University. He became a psychiatrist in the British Army after he developed an interest in working with the mentally distressed. Later, he trained at the Travistock Clinic in London, England. The Philadelphia Association was started by Laing and a group of colleagues in 1965. Then they also started a psychiatric project at Kingsley Hall where patients and therapists lived together.

His behavior would best be described as erratic and his spiritual preoccupations later in his life led to a decline in his reputation. When he was unable to develop a possible alternative to conventional medical treatment, his ideas were not and are not accepted by the psychiatric establishment. Even so, his contributions to the anti-psychiatry movement, specifically in family therapy, had a lasting impact. In 1989, he died of a heart attack.


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    • Highvoltagewriter profile image

      William Benner 3 years ago from Savannah GA.

      Very insightful article, I am surprised that I am the first to comment on it!