I just finished reading this excellent article by Nick Crossley about the anti-psychiatry movement (the article is behind a paywall, unfortunately). It’s funny – I’ve heard that term, ‘the anti-psychiatry movement’ tossed around so many times that I mistakenly came to believe that I knew what it meant. Having read Crossley’s article, I realise that I actually didn’t. Well, not really, anyway. At any rate, it got me thinking about some of the similarities that might exist between that movement and the current neurodiversity movement. But before I get to that, a bit about the article.
In a nutshell, Crossley offers a really useful social and historical review of the anti-psychiatry movement as it emerged in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. He seems somewhat enamoured by one particular figure who the movement apparently centred around: a certain R.D. Laing (not to be confused with the contemporary American entertainer Artie Lange – not that anyone was going to, of course. But seeing as I already went there: if you can stomach some really filthy language, and you are not easily offended, check out this comic, if only for his hilarious and often unsettling recollections of – until quite recently – being a heroin addict).
Whether the history of the anti-psychiatry movement is necessarily best told through the story of R.D. Laing, or if this focus is simply the result of Crossley’s fascination with this character, I do not know. And anyway, as Crossley himself writes in the beginning of his paper, you can’t ever tell every possible angle of a story; you simply need to choose that one piece of the story which you want to tell the most. And in this case, Crossley made a great choice, because this really is a fantastic read. And R.D. Laing really is a fascinating figure. Do a little reading about him if you don’t believe me.
But anyway, obviously the anti-psychiatry movement can’t be credited to just this one man, brilliant and charismatic as he may well have been. In fact, Crossley’s main argument is that Laing’s ideas would never have caught on – could never have caught on – if the social, cultural, political, historical, and even disciplinary conditions weren’t “just right”. The conditions were ideal, though, right then and there, and consequently Laing’s views made sense to people. Had he had those ideas 10 years earlier, they might never have been of any interest at all to anyone. In fact, had he had those idea 10 years earlier, he may never have had them in the first place (a bit of a paradox there, you know what I mean), because the conditions wouldn’t even have been right for him to be having those thoughts in the first place. You see my point?
In this sense, Crossley resolves the structure vs. agency debate as well as anyone can, really: individual human agents operate within an existing structure, he says, and they are also, to a large extent, products of that very structure. Individuals do have the power to shape society, sometimes even to change it; but this can only ever happen within the limitations posed by, and the possibilities afforded by the existing social structures (themselves, of course, prone to be shaped and changed by individuals… and so the game goes on and on).
So while he does focus on R.D. Laing the person – what it was that made him, and consequently his ideas and influence unique among his peers and in that particular place and time – what Crossley is saying is that what allowed these ideas to grow and become as influential as they did was the specific social and historical context from which they emerged and in which they were received. More specifically, Crossley is referring to: (1) the extremely powerful and fiercely uncompromising state of the discipline of psychiatry at that time; (2) the advent of the political new left in Britain; and (3) the emergence of the 1960s counter culture, whose members were all too happy to accept and appropriate a philosophy that viewed psychiatry as an instrument of political power, utilised to control, in both obvious and subtle ways, the bodies and minds of the masses.
So yeah, reading this paper led me to think about the parallels between the anti-psychiatry movement and the neurodiversity movement. There are quite a few similarities here (the most important one being that both movements are extremely varied and heterogeneous, so please excuse my gross generalising and simplification). Both movements are very critical towards the medical construing of neurological variation as diseases or disorders. And both movements call for de-medicalization, to some extent at least. Relatedly, both movements tend to view society as the locus of mental illness rather than the individual; or in other words, they share the notion that to reduce individual suffering, one must target the ‘pathologies’ found in society and it’s institutions, not those imagined as properties of the individual. And importantly, both movements present an agenda that is as much political as it is academic, if not more so: power hierarchies, namely who gets to say what about whom and why (e.g. money, influence, hegemony), feature prominently in both movements’ view of things.
And yet – and do correct me if I’m wrong – it seems that the neurodiversity movement isn’t gaining as much popularity as the anti-psychiatry did back when. Sure, it’s everywhere when you look for it, and every newspaper and magazine features the odd shocked article where it reports that ‘that’ perspective exists (rarely crediting it as being as equally valid as the generally accepted medical view of mental conditions), but it doesn’t quite seem to even get close to the wide reaching, near-world-changing popularity of its predecessor.
Why is that? Given the unbelievably impressive array of authors and speakers promoting the neurodiversity paradigm, I suppose it would make sense to shift our gaze away from individual agents and look for answers instead in the all-powerful ‘context’: the systems, institutions, discourses, disciplines – in short, society. There it would be ‘decided’, in history’s tribunal, whether an idea will change the world or destined to become a small footnote.
So, what? Isn’t society capable and willing to accept the neurodiversity paradigm as a valid alternative to the biomedical model of mental illness? Can’t our existing discourses entertain this network of ideas? And aren’t society’s institutions – medical, legal, educational, legislative – able to adapt such notions into their heavy, complex and necessarily slow moving mechanisms?
Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. The thing about social structure is that it constantly changes. What’s true today night not necessarily be true tomorrow. So, time will tell, I suppose.