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'Sanity, Madness, and the Family': Anti-Psychiatry in 1960s and 1970s Britain

Claire Sewell

This session examines the relationship between mental illness and the family, focusing on anti-psychiatry in 1960s and 1970s Britain. The so-called anti-psychiatry ‘movement’ comprised a range of critiques of traditional psychiatry. Some individuals associated with anti-psychiatry viewed mental illness as a social construct, whilst others had a strong aversion to physical treatments, including electro-convulsive therapy.

Anti-psychiatry emerged during the 1960s, at a time when the British government was beginning to develop a policy of deinstitutionalisation, by moving towards the closure of large, long-stay mental hospitals, built during the nineteenth century. In Britain, anti-psychiatry was popularised by the work of David Cooper and R.D. Laing via penguin paperback editions of their books, and through Ken Loach's documentary-dramas, In Two Minds (1967) and Family Life (1971).

According to Cooper and Laing the family was both the cause of, and solution to, schizophrenia. As an alternative to traditional psychiatric treatments, Cooper and Laing established therapeutic communities, including Kingsley Hall and Villa 21. Although their work reached a wide audience, Cooper and Laing were not without their critics. Organisations striving to support the well-being of families who had a relative with schizophrenia, including the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, were particularly hostile in their response to anti-psychiatry.

Preliminary Reading (available to download on the Resources page, sign-in required)
Core reading: Colin Jones, 'Raising the Anti: Jan Foudraine, Ronald Laing and Anti-Psychiatry', in Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds.) Cultures of Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in Postwar Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) pp. 283-294
Introductory overview of period's British psychiatry: Roy Porter, 'Two Cheers for Psychiatry!', in Hugh Freeman and German Berrios (eds.) 150 Years of British Psychiatry Volume II: the Aftermath (London: Athlone, 1996) pp. 383-406
Nick Crossley, 'R.D. Laing and British Anti-Psychiatry: A Socio-Cultural Historical Analysis', Social Science and Medicine 47 (1998) pp. 877-898
Digby Tantam, 'The Anti-Psychiatry Movement', in Hugh Freeman and German Berrios (eds.) 150 Years of British Psychiatry, 1841-1991 (London: Gaskell, 1991) pp. 333-347