R. D. Laing, Thomas S. Szasz, and Mental Patients’ Liberation

Maverick psychiatrist Ronald David Laing once defined madness as follows: “Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” This speaks to the theoretical divide between R.D. Laing and his contemporary, fellow psychiatrist Thomas Stephen Szasz. His attitude towards Laing, from the beginning, was that of almost a visceral rejection, but on the grounds that Laing was, in his eyes, dissolute or lacking in moral fiber. This sort of symbolizes the distance between these two figures often falsely associated in the public mind.

Laing was a seminal thinker for the decade that came to be known as “the turbulent sixties”. Thoms Szasz was an emigre from a Hungary that fell under the soviet orbit following WWII, and thus reflected an older and more established world view, although similar claims could be made there, too. Szasz disputed the idea of mental illness, and approved, when it came to treatment, only of a therapist client sort of arrangement, an arrangement that jived with free trade. Laing wanted to throw off the divisions between patient and therapist in his unstructured and freer environment, the experimental therapeutic community, or residence.

What Szasz saw in Laing’s therapeutic setting, in his social experiment, was collectivism, of which, regardless of whether you are looking at communism or monasticism, he violently disapproved. Laing, on the other hand, recognized some of his clients “issues” as situational and social rather than imaginary and isolated. The theory is simple, you put some plants in one environment, and they are going to shrivel and die, however, if you transfer the same plants to another environment, they thrive. Animals, specifically the human animal, must be pretty much the same way.

There were other differences between the two, the stance of Szasz was moral. He was against forced treatment, and being against forced psychiatric treatment, he opposed the insanity defense as well. Laing, despite his social experiment, would never go so far as to oppose psychiatric force across the board. Power was something, for him, a psychiatrist might ruminate about, melodramatically, without relinquishing. He also was not beyond using the insanity defense, of which Szasz disapproved, in testimony before a court of law. Laing was operating under a mandate to live one’s life completely, and in so being, he would not be restricted by such moral constraints.

Another issue Szasz attacked Laing over was his use of psychiatric terminology, disease language, which he rejected. If “mental illness” was a myth, we shouldn’t speak of “problems in living”, as Szasz saw them, as “diseases”. Laing thought the disease theory, merely a theory, and not one that he necessarily subscribed to, but one he was not beyond utilizing in the interests of research and treatment. Basically it boils down to this. Laing served as an inspiration to those in favor of alternatives to forced and conventionally harmful treatments while Szasz served as an inspiration to those who would abolish forced treatment. Szasz’s approach to treatment focused more on accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions rather than evading that responsibility.

Thomas Szasz’s most famous book, in which he first expounded his views, The Myth of Mental Illness, was published in 1961, a year after he had published a landmark essay by the same title. R. D. Laing’s entrance into the published world began with The Divided Self, arguably his most famous book, in 1960. Kingley Hall, the first Laingian experiment, operated in London from 1965 – 1970. The mental patients’ liberation, or psychiatric survivor, movement began in 1969/1970 with the launch of the Lunatic Liberation Front in Portland, Oregon. The mental patients’ liberation movement, in so far as it existed, before becoming almost totally co-opted by federal financing, was against force and for “alternatives”, and thus, could be said to have been influenced and inspired by both figures.