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The theory of the limits of the madness of R. D. Laing

The theory of the limits of the madness of R. D. Laing

October 5, 2022

Psychiatry has not always been a controversial field of work, but what is clear is that it has always had a direct effect on the lives of many people. That is why, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, began to question vigorously the way in which health institutions managed the treatment given to people with mental disorders.

One of the representatives of this stream of claims was Ronald David Laing, a controversial Scottish psychiatrist who devoted a good part of his life to questioning the limits of psychiatry and madness as a concept.

  • Related article: "Antipsychiatry: history and concepts of this movement"

Who was R. D. Laing? Short biography

R. D. Laing was born in Glasgow in 1927. He studied medicine in the same city and, later, worked as a psychiatrist in the British Army, where he was interested in investigating the role of stress in mental health.


In the year 1965. R. D. Laing opened the Philadelphia Association , an institution that offers training to mental health professionals and, at the same time, treatment for patients. In addition, he opened a project in which therapists and patients coexisted.

The objective that Laing set was to put pressure on psychiatry to adopt a much more humanistic approach in which the cultural and psychosocial aspects of the experience of mental disorder were also considered. However, when proposing alternatives, it could only indicate the directions in which it could be advanced, without developing them.

The theory of the madness of R. D. Laing

Laing believed that there is no categorical border that separates sanity from madness. This principle was opposed to the psychiatric practice of the time , that well into the twentieth century consisted in part of hacking patients in psychiatric centers with few means; fundamentally, an attempt was made to isolate people with mental disorders from the rest of the population, a way of hiding a social problem, while they were medicated to deal simply with problems that were understood to be individual and not collective.


On the other hand, that idea according to which madness and normality are part of the same spectrum he married well with the theoretical proposal of psychoanalysis . However, the current initiated by Sigmund Freud also presented ideas that in the eyes of the defenders of antipsychiatry are limiting, since it establishes a strong determinism in which the environmental influence of the past conditions us and practically forces us to protect our consciousness of thoughts and memories that can cause our entire mental life to go into severe crises on a regular basis.

Thus, the theory of the limits of the madness of R. D. Laing was different from both hegemonic psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

Against the stigmatization of the disease

Laing noted that although mental illness has always generated stigmatization, the way in which psychiatry treats patients can also nourish and perpetuate that depersonalization and disparagement.


For this psychiatrist, for example, schizophrenia, being the serious mental illness that we all know, is not so much an internal problem of the person as or A understandable reaction to events that can not be accepted , which are too disturbing. In this way, to know the disorder well we must know the cultural filter through which the person experiences his life.

That is, according to Laing's theory, mental disorder is nothing more than an expression of anguish, something linked to one's own experiences and not failures that can only be explained by examining the brain. That is why it is necessary to study the social and cultural dynamics, the way in which the environment affects the person.

Laing's ideas lead to think that Psychosis is, in reality, attempts to express oneself of the person with disorders of schizophrenic type, and that therefore are not in themselves something bad, something that deserves the exclusion of that person by the rest of society.

Psychotherapy without drugs

As for R. D. Laing the disorder does not have an original cause in the brain, but in the interaction, it does not make sense to base the therapeutic interventions on the medication and the use of psychotropic drugs. This was a widespread idea among the defenders of antipsychiatry, and he defended it with vehemence. As a substitute, Laing tried to make initiatives to understand the symbolisms that are expressed through the symptoms of mental disorder.

This approach was controversial, since would mean leaving many patients without relief in exchange for postponing their solution until the internal logic of his problem was understood.

On the other hand, Laing's ideas are still seriously questioned today, since there is no evidence that in mental disorders there are causes that operate in a symbolic way. However, the pressure that both he and his antipsychiatry colleagues made to improve the patients' living conditions has paid off, and psychiatry is currently treating these people much better.


Seth Farber Ph.D, 10-30-08 (October 2022).


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