Ronald David Laing Essay


Ronald David Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist of the 20th century who focused his studies on mental illnesses. His take on the causes and treatment of mental disorders had a great influence from existential philosophy and was in contravention to the conventional psychiatry. Laing argued that the feelings being articulated by the patients were valid descriptions of lived experiences as opposed to being mere signs representing a particular disease. Laing was linked to the anti-psychiatric movement which he vehemently denied. He developed the theory about mental illnesses which held that mental disorders were an instrument that was developed by individuals as a way of freeing themselves from unbearable situations. He was a revolutionary philosopher and held many doubts about the control measures that were enforced to people by the family. Laing was opposed to the physiological explanation for mental illnesses and argued that such illnesses were caused by environmental factors. This paper shall look at the contributions of Ronald David Laing to the field of Psychiatry with his controversial observations.

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Ronald David Laing:

He was a psychiatrist who is known to have researched and written widely on mental disorders specifically on the experience of psychosis. His perspectives got influence from existential philosophy and were contrary to the psychiatric beliefs of the day. He denied his link to the anti-psychiatric movement much like most of his cotemporaries. Laing had a unique view in regard to madness (Miller, 2009).

He begun serious experimental programs when he set up the ‘Rumbus Room’ at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow which was leading in the provision of clean, calm, and friendly atmosphere for mentally disturbed individuals for them to express their irritability. Laing was an extraordinary fellow with unique intuition which enabled him to have empathetic communication with the mentally ill patients. This was exhibited when on one occasion and to the amazement of many, he managed to communicate with a mentally ill patient as observed below:

Once, on a tour of a hospital in Chicago, he was confronted with a young woman crouching in a padded cell, stark naked and silently rocking to and fro. He stripped off and joined her, crouching alongside and rocking in time with her. After 20 minutes, to the amazement of watching doctors, she spoke for the first time in months (Miller, 2009, para 12).

He continued with his research activities on madness at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and even opened private consultation rooms in Wimpole Street. His research activities culminated into various publications including ‘The Divided Self’ during the 1960s which earned him a lot of fame (Miller, 2009).

He was of the view that behaviors and confusion of speech in individuals with a psychotic problem could be understood when regarded as an effort to communicate the uncertainties and distress, more often in circumstances where doing so was impossible or prohibited. Laing argued that the society, especially the family unit was responsible for the development of mental illnesses. His argument held that people find themselves in a difficult state of affairs in which it is unrealistic to match with the peer expectations. This leads to a ‘lose-lose’ scenario and a heavy mental stress to the person concerned. He therefore viewed mental illness as an expressive form of the resultant situation and thus should be evaluated as a therapeutic and transformative occurrence (Laing, & Esterson, 1964).

This view was in contradiction with the conventional psychiatric beliefs. His revolutionary approach was evident in the evaluation of what was contained in the psychotic behavior and speech which he regarded as valuable expressions of anguish. These expressions were disguised in the unusual personal symbolism as far as Laing was concerned. He believed an improved understanding of an individual by a therapist was instrumental to increased capability of making valid observations from the symbolic expressions. This shall in turn be useful in attending to the issues that are the main cause of mental illnesses (Laing, & Esterson, 1964).

It is worthy noting that Laing recognized the existence of mental illnesses only that he developed a different perspective on the matter. Madness was considered as a transformative journey by Laing in which case he likened the procedure of mental suffering with shamanic journey (Miller, 2009). According to Laing, the individual on this journey could return with critical insights and could even be much wiser. Despite denial, Laing is considered as a pivotal figure of the anti-psychiatric movement together with other individuals who were in contravention with the conventional psychiatry (Miller, 2009).


Though Laing has been criticized for his take on psychiatry, his contribution was essential as it provided an alternative to the conventional psychiatric belief that mental illnesses were caused by biological elements alone. Laing brought in the element of society and environment in understanding the madness which has been adapted by some psychiatrists though others are still convinced madness is purely a biological process. His contributions to the discipline of psychiatry can not be ignored. Laing has been credited for having stood against all odds to expound his view which was in contravention to the traditions of the discipline that he was serving.


Laing, R.D. & Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness, and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140211578

Miller R. (2009). RD Laing: The abominable family man. Retrieved on 14th May 2010 from;