Schizophrenia Awareness Week, November 11-17, 2013

R.D. Laing

And so it is upon us – Schizophrenia Awareness Week 2013, now with just two days to go until the closing gong. So here I am doing my bit, in the hope that my small action here will help to de-stigmatise what must be an incredibly difficult condition to live with.

I have not had much personal exposure to schizophrenia, though I do hold the view that diagnostic labels can often be more dangerous than the conditions which they describe. In that sense, I have some sympathy with the thoughts of R.D Laing (1927 -1981), a Scottish Psychiatrist and a controversial figure, who believed that schizophrenia was “a theory not a fact”. He rejected that schizophrenia was genetically inherited – a prominent model of the time – which was also rejected by leading contemporary medical geneticists.

Laing’s views were greatly informed by existential philosophy and he believed that the feelings and experiences expressed by the person with schizophrenia were valid descriptions of the lived experience, from which there was much of therapeutic value to be gleaned. In fact, he rejected the notion of an underlying biological model of mental illness more generally – according to Laing, diagnosis of mental illness did not follow a traditional medical model and this led him to question the use of medication, such as anti-psychotics, for those diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Rather, he saw ‘schizophrenics’ as somehow luminary, people who were expressing fundamental truths about their lives and the world around us, and whose difficulties were merely a reflection and expression of unresolved aspects of their lives. A passage from one of his books, The Politics of Experience, reads:

If our human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savour the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call ‘schizophrenia’ was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds.”  

From this, we observe the respect he has for those who suffer from schizophrenia, whom he sees as shining beacons in the darkness of our ‘enlightened epoch’. Frankly, I’m with Laing, who was effectively blowing wide open preconceptions and misconceptions about the condition.

A year ago, in November 2012, the independent Schizophrenia Commission published its report The Abandoned Illness which found that significant change is urgently required in the NHS (and beyond) to ensure that people affected by schizophrenia, and their families, get the support they need. Following its publication, Rethink Mental Illness Innovation Network has been working with the NHS and independent providers to turn the report’s recommendations into nationwide change. The focus has been on providing therapeutic inpatient care, supporting people into employment and improving physical health outcomes.

Whether you hold with Laing’s views or a more biological basis for the condition, it’s clear that people with schizophrenia need understanding and they need help. Let’s hope that awareness-raising, along with government-sponsored and private action, will deliver positive change.

Written by Jacqui Hogan