Sunday, 22 January 2012 09:22

Ronald D. Laing : Men Of Ideas

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R. D. Laing wrote in the 1960s when it seemed rational to reduce all that is wrong with human beings to social causation. He appeared to suggest that family communications (filled with lies and double binds) set some children up to be confused hence become psychotic. Although he denied doing so, the logical conclusion of his hypothesis is that parents caused their children’s mental illness. Laing did not believe that biology had anything to-do with psychosis. Mental illness is a product of bad communication between parents and their children so talk to the mentally ill differently and you heal them. Laing embraced talk psychotherapy as a modality for healing mental illness. There is no evidence that all his cute talking healed one mentally ill person.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Ronald David Laing (1927-1989) was a Scottish psychiatrist. He took issues with the psychiatric establishment although it is not easy to ascertain what exactly those issues were. Apparently, Laing read some existentialism (Sartre, Camus and Jasper etc) and tried to use it to explain psychosis.  Though he was called an existential psychologist, unfortunately, there is little evidence that he understood existentialism.

Since Laing is associated with existentialism and I am an existentialist who believes that Laing knew little about existentialism, let me begin this review by summarizing existentialism.

Existentialism posits that using pure reason we cannot ascertain any purpose to our lives. There is no meaning and purpose to our existence (other than the ones we give to our lives and those are generally make belief).

If we look at our bodies they are not different from the bodies of animals and, indeed, trees. We are biological organisms, and like all such organisms are destined to die.

We shall die, rot and smell to high heaven (have you seen a decaying human body?). The very bodies we slave to make a living for, that we practically enslave ourselves to other people so as to obtain the means for sustaining them would, give or take a hundred years, die and rot.  There is no evidence that there is life after death.

Simply stated, our bodies have no worth and value (if you melt down a human body   the elements in it would not fetch a dollar).  There you have it; our lives are meaningless and our bodies are worthless.

Yet, as human beings, we think that we live meaningful and purposeful lives; as human beings we fancy that our bodies are worthwhile and valuable.

There seems disconnection between our reality (nothingness) and our make belief reality (belief in our worth). We are existentially nothing but psychologically pretend to be important.

Are we important? What do you say to tsunamis sweeping us to death? How exactly special are we if we are at the mercy of nature and other people. A madman like Hitler decides that he enjoys killing folk and killed fifty million of them and no god stopped him; he was stopped only by those who did not want to be killed, us.

Our existential situation creates conflicts in our minds. No wonder some folk are insane.

Some people go insane because they confront a meaningless existence and try to pretend that it is meaningful.

Those who are able to play tricks on their minds and convince themselves that despite the reality of their nothingness that they are something important are said to be normal persons.

Apparently, there are folks who are unable to reconcile their existential nothingness with their desire for importance. .

Some folk try to escape our existential conflict by inventing grandiose self concepts for themselves and behave as if they are those imaginary ideal self concepts.

Those we call psychotic persons apparently believe that they are who they are not, special persons. While walking the streets, filthy and poor, psychotics believe that they are godlike in their powers and importance.

The psychotic sees himself as god, or a famous man, a rich man, a powerful man. Yet he is unable to provide for his needs. It does not make sense, does it?

But before you go thinking that you are different from the psychotic consider what you are doing. You, too, probably believe that you are important. Are you special?

If you are such an important person how come nature doesn’t have respect for you? Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, draughts, plagues, diseases virus, bacteria, fungi etc kill human beings as they kill animals and trees. So what exactly makes human beings important?

Pure reason can not see how a human being is important, how he is different from dogs, mosquitoes, trees etc.

Yet human beings do manage to convince themselves that they are special and important. They even have gods of their imagination that they believe exist to protect them though there is not an iota of evidence that any one other than themselves protects them. There is no God looking after our interests.  Yet we manage to convince ourselves that God exists and looks after our interests.

How did we play this trick on ourselves so that we come to believe what is not true as true, believe that God exists and protect us and that we are important?

Instead of addressing himself to the issues that concern existentialists, R. D. Laing posited pseudo existentialism and on that basis made silly noises about mental illness.

He tells us that psychosis is caused by society, that how children were raised has a lot to do with the genesis of psychosis.  He said that psychotic to be children were in a no win situation, a lose-lose situation where no matter what they did they lost.

Gregory Bateson, another romanticist, called the psychotic to be child’s family situation “double bind”. As he saw it, schizophregenic parents gave their children double bind messages: go and come, do this don’t do this, and no matter what the child did he lost. The child is therefore confused. Blame the parents for schizophrenia.

Okay, let us blame parents. We are always looking for some one to blame for our problems.

Now that we have blamed parents for our issues to our hearts content what are we gonna do for psychotics? Telling them that their parents caused their problems is one thing, healing them is another.

Did Laing heal his psychotics?  Of course he did not heal any psychotic. His was radical chic psychiatry. Pampering  and pitying psychotics by telling them that it is not their fault that they are insane,  that it is their parents and society’s fault may make them feel like victims but aint gonna heal their mental disorder. Only understanding of their bodies would heal them.

One is not holding a brief for psychiatry.  One merely wants to say that we have not understood the cause of mental illness.

Until recently psychiatry had no evidence that mental illness had anything to do with the brain? Psychosis was called functional disorder.

Psychiatry desperately wanting to be considered a medical science would like to believe that there is a brain disorder in psychotics and without first proving that brain disorder give the unfortunate creatures called the mentally ill a whole slew of medications. These medications appear to suppress some of the symptoms of mental illness and certainly do not heal them.

We need to do a lot more study of the human brain and body before we can understand the etiology of mental disorders. Even then I suspect that a combination of biological disorders and thinking disorders (disorders from inability to reconcile man’s existential nothingness and his wish for existential worth) is the causal factor in mental disorder.

Laing was all over the place making a whole lot of noises about mental illness. Whether he was seeing psychotic decomposition as sort of mystical experience hence transformative (though we have not seen one psychotic become a mystic) or blaming parents for their children’s illness or talking about families patterns of communications (lies that children are expected to believe and the sensitive ones refuse to believe them and become confused), or pathological society setting some children up to fail and that causing mental illness., he had no cure for psychosis.

Laing wrote a lot of interesting nonsense. In some books he appears to be anti psychiatry, yet he made his living as a psychiatrist. In some places he appears to doubt the reality if mental illness yet he built his Kingsley Hall to treat the mentally ill. If the mentally ill were okay how come they needed somebody to support them? Left alone the mentally ill would not support themselves and would not last on the job and therefore would starve to death or eat from dustbins and die from germs.

Laing wrote interesting books but books that could not heal the psychotic he appeared to sympathize with. His books appeal to rebellious young folks who are anti everything, psychiatry included. Psychiatry may not be the panacea but one does not see an alternative to it. (Thomas Tzas was another psychiatrist who claimed that mental illness is a myth. In his view, the mentally ill are malingering, do not want to work and want society to take care of them. While bashing mental illness yet Mr. Tsaz made his living as a psychiatrist; one would have expected him to hang up his shingles and enter into another line of business. Mental illness is real and we have to seek cure for it in biological studies.)

The mentally ill are always with us. We ought to study and understand why some folk react to the exigencies of their bodies and the existential dilemma facing human beings with psychosis and neurosis. Laing did not even begin to understand psychoses. Reading Laing is like reading Freud talking about neurosis; neither knows what they are talking about.


Laing R.D (1960) The Divided Self. Harmondsworth: Penguin

(1964) Sanity, Madness and the family. London:  Penguin

(1967)    The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176