Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Mad to Be Normal Screening & Film Essay


Tinted Lens: Mad to Be Normal

The screening at Chapter Arts Centre (www.Chapter.org) will be followed by an expert panel discussion and audience debate to explore some of the themes raised by this film.

There was no more charismatic or controversial a figure during the swinging ‘60s than Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing. Dubbed the “high priest of anti-psychiatry”, Laing was as famous as Dylan. In 1965, he established Kingsley Hall in London as a medication-free community for those seriously affected by schizophrenia. His methods flew in the face of a medical establishment that considered Laing a dangerous radical. Mad to Be Normal offers a powerful account of Laing’s Kingsley Hall experiment.

Dir: Robert Mullan. Writers: Robert Mullan, Tracy Moreton
With: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon

A collaboration between Chapter Arts Centre, the British Film Institute (Film hub Wales) and Cardiff University, this programme of events curated by Dr Katie Featherstone will explore contemporary social and cultural developments and the ideas found within new-release, cult and classic film, with a focus on understandings of the mind, human behaviour, memory, the life-course, and ageing. 

The film screening starts at 7.30pm Wednesday the 17th March, Chapter Arts Centre. Followed by the free panel discussion and debate.

Speakers are:

Robert Mullan is best-known for his features, Letters to Sofija, Gitel and We Will Sing. He will discuss the process of writing and directing Mad to be Normal.

Steven Stanley is a critical social psychologist and will draw on his current research examining mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare, criminal justice, and social work.

Tracey Loughran is a historian of twentieth-century Britain. She will discuss her research on how knowledge is constructed, ‘translated’ and transformed across different disciplines from 'shell-shock' in First World War Britain, psychoanalysis in the interwar period, and psychological subjectivities in postwar Britain. 

Michael Coffey research examines the delivery and organisation of community mental health care. He will draw comparisons with some of the fundamental ideas underpinning the Kingsley Hall therapeutic community and developments in contemporary mental health care associated with recovery approaches.


Mad to Be Normal Film Essay

Tracey Loughran

Among other things, I teach on the history of psychology and psychiatry. Unsurprisingly, this is an area which involves some complex and very sensitive issues, which often have a great deal of resonance in the lives of students who have chosen to take these modules, as well as for myself (the person who has chosen to teach on it). I always have to try to anticipate the assumptions that students might bring to the topic, and to search quite honestly for my own emotional reactions to the topic. Teaching the history of anti-psychiatry raises a unique set of complexities, and it raises questions which I cannot answer. Here, then, are some off-the-cuff thoughts on the movement.

Most students have not heard of the anti-psychiatry movement, but they are almost all familiar with its ideas. The early 1960s were a period of intense questioning of the purpose of psychiatry, often from within the profession itself, but also in work of sociologists and historians. Over the next decade, these academic and professional critiques of psychiatry went mainstream, becoming part of the counter-culture. Anti-psychiatry texts issued as Penguin paperbacks became fashion accessories.[1] This critical approach to psychiatry that became known as the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement, and it continues to shape the way many of us think about psychiatry today.

However, it is often difficult to disentangle the aims of the anti-psychiatry movement from what it did (or didn’t) do, and the effects it had on patients’ lives.  We might perhaps view the anti-psychiatry movement as asking three important questions:
1.     Does madness exist?
2.     If it does exist, how is it defined?
3.     What is the ultimate purpose of psychiatry?

These are questions which needed to be asked, and Laing was not the only one to ask them. In The Myth of Mental Illness (1960), the Hungarian-born, American-based academic and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz argued that in reality there is no such thing as mental illness: it is just a name for apparently “deviant” behaviour. In his view, psychiatry enforces social conformity, in much the same way as religion did in medieval times. Another important text which questioned whether psychiatry really aims to “cure” patients was Asylums (1961), by the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman set out a theory of asylums as ‘total institutions’, where every part of life is subordinated to the overall needs of the organisation. Other total institutions, according to Goffman, were prisons and the army. Goffman argued that total institutions ‘institutionalise’ their inmates: they aim to ensure that each inmate performs his or her allotted role, and that behaviour is regular and predictable. He said that in these institutions, adjustment to the rule of the institution is seen as more important than “cure”.

The negative effects of psychiatric labelling were highlighted in a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist David Rosenhan in the early 1970s. Rosenhan asked “healthy” volunteers to fake hallucinations in order to be admitted to different psychiatric hospitals across the United States. After admission, the volunteers were instructed to behave normally and to tell staff they were now fine. Despite acting “normally”, all the volunteers were diagnosed with a mental illness, and only obtained release from the institution after agreeing to take antipsychotic drugs. The experiment is widely interpreted as showing that once someone has been diagnosed as insane, their behaviour is usually interpreted as further confirmation of madness, no matter how sane it might appear in other contexts.

Laing was not, then, alone in raising questions about the ultimate aim of psychiatry. What was perhaps different about Laing, at least as time went on, was his way with words and his ambivalent embrace of celebrity status. I think first of his famous question about who has really lost their grip on reality: the 17 year old girl who thinks she has an atom bomb inside here, or the statesmen who can unleash nuclear weapons on the world. This is a forceful way of asking what social conformity actually means, and whether psychiatrists should try to enforce it. Laing increasingly came to believe and to argue that they should not. Yet, as was perhaps inevitable given his forceful personality and the strength of his beliefs, in some ways Laing came to embody a different kind of authority – an anti-authority within anti-psychiatry. We see not only his charisma, but his power, in press shots where he is photographed in unconventional ways – up a tree, sprawled on a rug, barefoot. He rejects the traditional trappings of psychiatric power (the white coat, the medicalised setting, the position standing over a patient) – but it takes a certain self-confidence and belief, a certain power, to willingly shed these accretions and become vulnerable. Vulnerability was a choice for Laing in a way it was not for those who came to him for help.

I think here of Jenny Diski’s conclusion in her memoir:

Laing focused the notion of liberation of the insane with the buzz that was already beginning to be heard about the liberation of the mind in a broader sense, and it was thrillingly cogent. At least in theory. Laing was a brilliant theoretician; but as a practitioner, Dr. Ronnie’s patients were often dumped back into institutions or left to cope for themselves when they became too hard even for him to handle. He called in the men in white coats and walked away more than once to my knowledge. Drugs, drink, general craziness and a phenomenal amount of ego mixed with the theory and made some dangerous black holes in the practice.
Even aside from Laing’s own limitations, there was the matter of pain. While we romanticised madness, he and those of us who supported him failed to take seriously the excruciating pain of the mad. Pain was existential truth, so the anti-psychiatrists permitted them to go through it; indeed, insisted that they did. In fact, as anyone stuck in the middle of a severe depression or a terrifying psychotic episode would have told their champions if they’d really been listening, people suffering from severe mental illness would do anything to make the anguish stop […] The anti-psychiatrists took other people’s pain too philosophically.[2]

Diski was not treated by Laing, but she is writing as someone who spent time in mental hospitals, who suffered from psychiatric problems, who had embraced the counter-culture. She writes this as, to a certain extent, an insider.

Yet her criticism also demonstrates that in thinking about Laing and anti-psychiatry, about the legacy of the movement, and what it meant, it is almost impossible to avoid the extremes of romanticism or rejection. It is difficult not to be seduced by what anti-psychiatry tried to do, but it is equally difficult to view it as a success. It asked us to question the conventional aims of psychiatry, but it did not put anything but questions in place of those conventional aims. Is questioning enough? It is, perhaps, for those of us who sit on the other side of the fence, who are not dependent on psychiatrists for our well-being; those who try to help people who are fragmented and falling apart cannot be blamed for dealing in practicalities. And yet, anyone who enters the psychiatric system as a patient is perhaps uniquely vulnerable, not only at the mercy of the institution but in the almost unique position of their illness making them less likely to be listened to, to be truly heard. Laing insisted that patients should be heard and, if reading his own texts, he seems that his interpretations of their words were sometimes overdetermined, then at least he tried.

The anti-psychiatry movement was not perfect. It was often too critical of psychiatry, replacing a narrative of the heroic progress of psychiatry with a one-dimensional story of control and oppression. Often, its criticisms of psychiatry did not take into account the distressing nature of psychiatric symptoms, or the genuine efforts of many psychiatrists and other medical personnel to help patients. However, the anti-psychiatry movement did articulate enduring questions about the nature of sanity and madness, the purpose of psychiatry, and the extent of individual freedom. These questions are still debated today because, in the words of psychiatrist Tom Burns, ‘mental illnesses reflect what is human and difficult about us’.[3] They are questions which will never stop being relevant, because they are about the nature of being human.


[1] C. Jones, ‘Raising the Anti: Jan Foudraine, Ronald Laing and Anti-Psychiatry’, in M. Gijswift-Hofstra and R. Porter (eds), Cultures of Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in Postwar Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam, 1998), p.
[2] Jenny Diski, The Sixties (London, 2009), pp. 132-3.
[3] Tom Burns, Our Necessary Shadow: The Nature and Meaning of Psychiatry (London, 2013), p. xvii.
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