While the label 'anti-psychiatry' was perhaps once useful in designating a certain oppositional or 'radical' approach to psychiatric orthodoxy in the 1960s and '70s, it has, in the decades following, also become a lazy and almost dismissive shorthand. This is partly due to the reductive effects of the terminology itself, the fact that employing it seems to grant detractors permission to speak from a position of half knowledge.
Rather than engaging with the specific histories or referencing the texts and ideas of specialists such as Thomas Szasz, or Franco Basaglia, the term is used to signify familiarity with a broad ideology or movement whose characteristics have now been reduced to the simple fact of being against the status quo or in opposition to the clinical mainstream.
All this despite the fact that the 'anti-psychiatry' label was an externally imposed, and most likely journalistic, construct. There was never a formally organised group of self-identifying anti-psychiatrists, no manifesto, and no official credo to follow.
The psychiatrist R.D. Laing is frequently associated with and identified as either a prime mover within or the spiritual father of anti-psychiatry. It is no surprise then, that interpretations of his ideas are often informed by partial readings (if readings take place at all), and the disproportionate spotlighting of more sensational or potentially transgressive aspects of his activities and personal life. What is often overlooked in the process is Laing's philosophy and practice of person-centred treatment, an approach he describes as 'existential phenomenology' in The Divided Self, published in 1960. He writes:
'Existential phenomenology attempts to characterize the nature of a person's experience of his world and himself. It is not so much an attempt to describe particular objects of his experience as to set all particular experiences within the context of his whole being-in-his-world.'
'One has to be able to orientate oneself as a person in the other's scheme of things rather than only to see the other as an object in one's own world, i.e. within the total system of one's own reference'
So, for a patient said to be suffering from a given set of delusions, the process of determining a cause and treatment must follow from their experiential reports of the world in which they live, and the interpersonal networks within which they interact with others (family, friends, work, and so on). The psychiatrist or psychotherapist who takes an existential phenomenological approach must begin by accepting that some truth is in the patient's experience. They must not proceed from a prejudicial attitude that always sees errors in the patient's perceptions and completely distrust their experiential reports of the world.
When we were talking through some of the ideas that led to this project, it struck us that existential phenomenology was an approach that could be effectively applied to almost every clinical instance of diagnosis, and that it would have beneficial consequences for both the lay and professional (that is the social and clinical) perception and treatment of illness.
To put that in slightly plainer language, we felt that in the majority of clinical encounters we'd seen first-hand or heard about through the reports of others, the patient's experience of their own condition was, beyond those details required for a kind of text-book diagnosis, discounted. However, if more attention were paid, more importance given, and more value attributed to the patient's personal experience, diet, social circumstances, economic standing and so on, then a much more effective process of diagnosis and treatment could follow.
Whether it's as simple as local GPs discounting reports of allergies that don't match the online symptom profiles they consult; or as complex as an entire system of clinical psychiatry that relies on the so-called 'medical model' of practice, follows the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) for a name and fixed diagnosis, and prescribes cocktails of medications that, by the luck of the draw, work for some and drastically decrease the quality of life for others, the person centred approach espoused in Laing's existential phenomenology would undoubtedly produce better results.
What is common to each of the artists' works in this exhibition is the presentation of a personal perspective. As such viewers are offered a chance (to borrow the words of Laing) to orientate themselves as people through the other's scheme of things. Each artist offers us a view of their scheme of things, and it is through that view that we are able to come to know something about both them and us.