R D Laing | a divided self

Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing changed the perception of mental illness

Born an only child in Glasgow in 1927, Ronald David Laing often claimed that his parents were psychologically ‘peculiar’. His father had a breakdown when Laing was in his teens.

Laing studied medicine at the University of Glasgow but failed his exams in 1951 and had to re-sit these (successfully) in 1952.

Early in his career, Laing worked as a psychiatrist for the British Army and later at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital, at the time being the youngest consultant in the country. In 1956, he trained at the Tavistock Institute in London, where he remained until 1964.

Best known for his work on psychosis, Laing’s views on the causes and treatment of mental illness were often not in line with the psychiatric beliefs of the day. Over the course of his career, Laing showed great empathy for those with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, and believed that the feelings and expressions of each patient should be seen as valid information about the patient’s lived experience rather than mere symptoms of a mental disorder.

Laing believed psychiatry looked upon mental illness as a biological or physiological concern without considering the social, intellectual and cultural dimensions of the patient. This view challenged the core principles of psychiatry at the time.

Much of Laing’s work focused on the subjective experience of schozophrenic patients. He felt that psychiatry dismissed the schizophrenic’s own experience. In his most famous book, The Divided Self (1960) – written when he was 28 years old – Laing tried to make mental illness understandable. Using case studies and experiences from his own practice, Laing suggested that psychosis is not a medical condition, but a result of the ‘divided self’, a type of distress between two personas within each of us. His work, and The Divided Self, changed the way mental illness is perceived and treated.

In 1960, Laing qualified as a psychoanalyst. He set up his private practice at 21 Wimpole Street in London.

In 1965, Laing founded the Philadelphia Association in London.

Laing’s personal life was troubled. For many years, he suffered from alcoholism and clinical depression. In 1987 he withdrew his name from the General Medical Council’s register after a patient reported him for drunkenness and aggressive behaviour.

Laing fathered 10 children by four women. Much has been written about his difficult relationships with his own families. In a 2008 interview with the Guardian newspaper, Laing’s second eldest son, Adrian, speaks candidly about having a drunk, emotionally unavailbale father who was prone to aggressive, unpredictable outbursts. He said, ‘When people ask me what it was like to be RD Laing’s son, I tell them it was a crock of shit.’

In 1976, Susie, Laing’s daughter from his first marriage, died of leukemia.

Laing’s oldest son Adam died in 2008 of a heart attack at the age of 41.

Laing, himself, died of a heart attack while playing tennis in 1989 at the age of 61.

A fascinating interview with Adrian Laing can be found in the Guardian.

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