Frantz Fanon’s Radical Approach to Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Anti-racist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon practiced a form of psychiatry based in decolonization, political awareness, and community.

Micah Ingle, MA
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A recent article published in the Journal of the History of Ideas traces the radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s involvement with the anti-racist and anti-colonial approach to psychiatry, known as “institutional psychotherapy.” The author, Camille Robcis of Columbia University, explores Fanon’s early dissatisfaction with an overly medicalized, neurological approach, as well as his work to decolonize the Eurocentric psychiatric clinic.

“More broadly, Fanon was articulating a point that he reiterated throughout his life: colonialism had a direct psychic effect. It could literally render someone mad by hijacking their person, their being, and their sense of self. The confiscation of freedom and the alienation brought about by colonialism and by racism were always simultaneously political and psychic,” Robcis writes.
George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, 5/30/2020 (IG: @clay.banks)

Frantz Fanon was a radical Martinican psychiatrist who wrote against racism and colonialism in western psychiatric practice. His classic books Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth explored the psychological effects of racist social and economic structures while asking questions about how people can liberate themselves from these unhealthy ways of organizing society.

Fanon wrote about and practiced a form of radical psychiatry called “institutional psychotherapy,” similar to French psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, at institutions like the Blida-Joinville hospital in Algeria.

Fanon’s name is less frequently associated with institutional psychotherapy than Guattari and others, however. From a decolonizing perspective, many people critical of psychiatry believe Fanon still has much to offer to the current landscape of mental health practice.

The current article explores the history of Frantz Fanon’s involvement with institutional psychotherapy, including the political and psychological aims of his work. Camille Robcis traces Fanon’s dissatisfaction with neurologically focused psychiatric work, as well as his work at the Blida-Joinville hospital, instating a form of psychiatry that was more respectful of cultural traditions and more focused on social liberation than adaptation and conformity.

Fanon believed that the psyche was directly impacted by the political situation in a given society. Although much of his psychiatric training was directed at neurological understanding, he quickly became disillusioned with this approach, given how it sidelined the real, powerful effects of racism and colonialism on the most marginalized.

Through studying Marxism and the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, as well as through his involvement in radical political organizations such as the anti-colonial Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), Fanon came to believe that people’s experience was conditioned by how others related to them—by their social relationships.

He was disheartened with how doctors treated North African Muslims, claiming that their psychological symptoms were “imaginary” or even a lie because they found nothing physically wrong with them. Describing what Fanon termed the “North African Syndrome,” he stated:

“Threatened in his affectivity, threatened in his social activity, threatened in his membership in the community—the North African combines all the conditions that make a sick man. Without a family, without love, without human relations, without communion with the group, the first encounter with himself will occur in a neurotic mode, in a pathological mode; he will feel himself emptied, without life, in a bodily struggle with death, a death on this side of death, a death in life.”

These dissatisfactions led Fanon to work with radical psychiatrist Francois Tosquelles at the Saint-Alban hospital in France, where he came into contact with the methods of institutional psychotherapy.

Opposing “concentrationism”—or the “potential of any institution or any group to become authoritarian, oppressive, discriminatory, and exclusionary”—Tosquelles and Fanon worked to create a psychiatric environment where alternative forms of social relationships and activities could work to heal those who would have been alienated from the community and, ultimately, themselves.

These methods included: “group therapies, general meetings, self-managed unions of patients (also known as “the Club”), ergotherapy workshops (such as printing, binding, woodwork, and pottery), libraries, publications, and a wide range of cultural activities (such as movies, concerts, and theater).”

The goal of these practices was to encourage community-building and self-determination among the patients—a “reconstitution” of the social—rather than force them to submit to the authority of a patronizing medical establishment.

Fanon carried the lessons he learned at Saint-Alban with him to North Africa. He established similar practices, with an underlying philosophy of decolonizing liberation, at the Blida-Joinville hospital in Algeria. Fanon believed that you had to “cure the hospital” before you could help the doctors or patients.

Though understaffed, Fanon initiated several new programs at Blida-Joinville with the help of progressive-minded interns. He created a café that functioned as a kind of social club or meeting place. He “organized daily meetings, built a library, set up ergotherapy stations—weaving, pottery, knitting, gardening—and promoted sports, especially soccer, which, he argued, could play an important role in the re-socialization of patients.”

Fanon noticed that these activities were instantly successful with European women patients at producing stronger social ties and self-determination, but less so with the Muslim men under his care. In the act of decolonization, he and his colleagues set out to sensitize themselves to the culture of these men, rather than continue to impose an imperialistic “western grid” on them.

He traveled throughout Algeria and discovered that the Muslim culture there was more interested in religious and familial gatherings than “parties.” They were more familiar with storytelling and reciting epic poems that modes of entertainment such as theater.

In response, Fanon and colleagues “changed their movie selection and privileged action-filled films; they picked games that were familiar to Algerians; they celebrated the traditional Muslim holidays; they invited Muslim singers to perform in the hospital, and they hired a professional storyteller to come speak to the patients.”

Fanon continued his anti-colonial political engagement until the end of his life, always maintaining the intimate link between sociopolitical and economic violence and mental health.

In speaking about the project of emancipation, Fanon believed that the oppressed in society must walk a fine line between rootedness in tradition and a more universal, humanist openness toward the future. He encouraged people to avoid “imitating Europe” and its models for life (and psychiatry), while also avoiding a hopeless return to an imagined pre-colonial past or tribalism.

Robcis concludes:

“Neither institutional psychotherapy nor national self-determination were meant as rigid templates or grids that could be applied indiscriminately and independently of context. Rather, they were to function more as an ethics, as a practice of everyday life that could prevent the appearance of ‘concentrationisms’ and ultimately lead to a freedom that would be collective and personal at once.”

 

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Robcis, C. (2020). Frantz Fanon, institutional psychotherapy, and the decolonization of psychiatry. Journal of the History of Ideas, 81(2), 303-325. (Link)

30 COMMENTS

  1. “Threatened in his affectivity, threatened in his social activity, threatened in his membership in the community—the North African combines all the conditions that make a sick man. Without a family, without love, without human relations, without communion with the group, the first encounter with himself will occur in a neurotic mode, in a pathological mode; he will feel himself emptied, without life, in a bodily struggle with death, a death on this side of death, a death in life.”

    “In speaking about the project of emancipation, Fanon believed that the oppressed in society must walk a fine line between rootedness in tradition and a more universal, humanist openness toward the future. He encouraged people to avoid “imitating Europe” and its models for life (and psychiatry), while also avoiding a hopeless return to an imagined pre-colonial past or tribalism.”

    It seems he sought out causes, but had few answers.

    • I wouldn’t call decolonialism a non-answer however you want to translate it. I think he was just trying to be realistic concerning some of the complexities in throwing off the yoke of western imperialistic rule. Tribalism, after all, helped fuel the slave-trade in its day. Fanon’s treatment, as I understood it, was to direct that anger outward against the source of it that had been directed inwardly at the victim of such exploitation.

  2. There are a lot of blogs on MiA talking about “social justice,” that pretend psychologists and psychiatrists care about “social justice.” When, in reality, “social justice” is 100% the opposite of what the DSM “bible” theology is all about. And 100% the opposite of how the majority of psychologists and psychiatrists behave, in my experience.

    For goodness sakes, I recently had a psychologist confess to me that, of course, the school social workers want to drug up the best and brightest American children, because it’s all about maintaining the status quo. Can you say traitors to America?

    This, while he was trying to coerce me into signing an “art manager” contract which would have allowed him to manage all profits from my work, and eventually all my assets into his pockets.

    When I called him out on his thievery contract, and refused to sign it, that psychologist then confessed that “some bankers want to get all of the assets into the hands of just a few.”

    This is what psychology and psychiatry are actually about. Their goal is to use trickery, lying, deceit, pedophilia cover ups, neurotoxic poisoning, and thievery to steal as much as they possibly can from the masses, for the globalist money masters.

    What the mainstream psychiatrists and psychologists stand for is the antithesis of “social justice.” And their theology, that they are “professionals,” who have the right to play God and (mis)judge all others, is downright anti-American.

  3. Well, Someone Else, I think that is part of the point here and why this article is noteworthy. Franz Fanon was about doing things differently. I guess that must be the neutral use of the word “radical” as in “Radical Psychology.” Doing things very differently. A number of psychologists and psychologizers have formally embraced the term “radical,” but I, as one of them am not sure I appreciate the negative connotations attached to it and thus to me. In the minority-corners of modern western psychology, choosing to place themselves in relation to it are the radical ones. Odd since the radical psychologists call themselves “critical psychologists” (interchangably) and I think it is a statement to the sad state of affairs in our world that critical thinkers are called “radical.” Sigh.

    AND at the same time, there are a lot of what Fanon would call colonialist psychologists posing as various types of liberators when they are nothing of the sort. This, as it seems you may be suggesting, Someone Else. In my career as a psychologist, I have been a member of numerous groups of professional peers. Excited everytime at first, I am ultimately disappointed. There is always SOMETHING they are clinging onto in self interest. The DSM, the APA, their paycheck, their privelege, being considered an expert in majority communities which validate and enable them.

    I am sad to say I’d not been familiar with Fanon before. I am glad however that Mx. Ingle introduced him. This was a great article both in substance and form. I am making a copy and saving it Thank you, Mx. Ingle. We need to flat out ditch Western Psychology. We can wrestle for the rights to determine what psychology is going to be, or we can just let the monsters have it. We can call something else – well, something else.

    • If “radical” means “getting to the root (though in math this would be a radicle, correct?) what would “radical” psychology be getting to the root of? Society? Capitalism? All things since the beginning of time?

      Semantically psychology connotes a study of the psyche, which would be a legitimate pursuit. But it is also proffered as a practice akin to psychoanalysis. Two completely different animals.

      So if words mean things we need to pay attention to them.

      Arial good to see you posting. Not directing this to you specifically, just using the reply button after your post. If I seem to be countering anything you’ve said you it would be a coincidence, it’s addressed generally.

  4. Fanon was a fanatic of insulin comas and electroshocks. But let Fanon speak for himself, since here, the editorial staff have lost any critical thinking to the point of extol one of the criminals we are fighting.

    “Second step. During a narco-analysis, we push the shot until deep sleep, we change the patient’s environment, and we transfer her to another district, where she must be submitted, without any new contact with the old psychotherapist, to the Bini cure [electroshocks]. Reaching the confusing stage as quickly as possible, we replace the “nursing home” environment and the individual room, with the very “hospital” “set” for several patients. Practically, if she has some clearings of conscience during these first days, she can only note the vague concept of “disease”, and that very reassuring of “attentive care”.

    Third step. Once the confused amnesic stage has been obtained, the patient begins to undergo insulin therapy [insulin comas] the aim of which is to place her, at the beginning of her awakening, in the very primitive situation of the mother-child intercourses: food in the mouth, cleanliness care, first words. […]

    […]

    Gradually, the corrections and the awareness of the situation become total. “I’m sorry, I was very sick, the other day, I spoke to you as if you were Miss X., twenty years ago…, when my brother was born… we didn’t need him. Now I don’t have to have the same ideas. It was a conversation I had with her. We spoiled him so bad he was raised badly… I’m confused about it. I was told that I was sick, but I didn’t believe it… It’s a great place here, with you… If one day I relapse – there has heredity with us – I would not hesitate a moment to come back… “

    She talks and cares about concrete problems in her community, especially with our only sister-nurse…, sometimes with us…; the behaviour becomes completely normal, and there is no sign of deterioration. She re-enters the community and quickly adapts to it. The hospitalization with us lasted a total of three months. During the five days of annihilation, she had seventeen electroshocks. She underwent forty insulin therapy sessions, forty days of directed institutional therapy.

    Sur quelques cas traités par la méthode de Bini

    I solemnly protest against the pro-psychiatric deviation of Mad in America, which reaches new heights where a supporter of electroshock, insulin comas and patient annihilation can be promoted as “radical” and “progressive” on Mad in America.

    sylvain.rousselot.pro (at) gmail.com

    • Frantz Fanon was a victim of his own time, in the sense that any man of his time is also a victim of that time, a time that believed mutilating brains with ice picks was a healing treatment. The confusion that came of brain damaging treatments was thought to be beneficial in sort of fashioning new beginnings. *cough, cough* Beyond that aspect of the matter, I think he also helped come up with a solution.

  5. Well, it seems as if I was off-base in praising him then. Given what I read here, though, he sounded pretty good to me. Then again, if all of these things are true, we might wish to regard the man’s works apart from man. If an immoral person suggested I tell my children that I love them, I may still consider the person immoral while taking that one piece of advice as a good idea. Of course I am looking at things presented by Mx. Ingle as the good ideas, and those practices by Fanon described by Mx. Rousselot as unacceptable to say the least. Thank you, Mx. Rousselot for adding to my education.

    • “Fanon became responsible for treating the psychological distress of the French soldiers and officers who carried out torture in order to suppress anti-colonial resistance. Additionally, Fanon was also responsible for treating Algerian torture victims.” (from Wiki)

      It’s quite a history that was concealed for some time. see for example The Battle for Algiers which was banned for 40 years? I can’t help but wonder if the ‘treatments’ differed. As someone who has been subjected to State sanctioned torture and then ‘referred’ to the torturers to treat the trauma, I can’t see that he would have had much success. My government denies any use of torture and as such they could not possibly supply treatment for it as this would be an admission that they are torturing. Deny access to effective legal representation, and deny the ability to leave or seek asylum. They will only consider assisting people who have been tortured by certain governments, and provide money to NGOs who will turn away anyone who has been subjected to torture by our own government.

      “It never happened” is the standard line that comes from their mouths after police have threatened their families. I guess that was an effective means of the psychologist dealing with the truth [denial], but it really didn’t help the trauma I was suffering as a result of the torture I was subjected to. And they did make an effort to conceal it, and well, I guess one is going to slip through the net eventually. Luckily no one is prepared to stand up, police ensuring silence, so they’re back in business without interuption. Maybe if I wait 40 years and we can all look back and say, if only we had known, we would have said something?

      So was Fannon really treating victims of torture? In whose opinion?

      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/13/france-state-responsible-for-1957-death-of-dissident-maurice-audin-in-algeria-says-macron

      I guess they did admit it eventually.

      See for example the confession by General Aussaresses regarding the unintended negative outcomes that occurred during interrogations.

  6. “If an immoral person suggested I tell my children that I love them, I may still consider the person immoral while taking that one piece of advice as a good idea.”

    This is the idea of “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Which btw, is supposed to “soften” one’s “ideology”.
    Sometimes it’s a good reminder, but it’s not my baby, so I don’t have any attachment to it.

  7. What I have noticed here, though it is much more obvious in society in general, is that if you have a degree in a subject – medicine in particular – and enough chutzpah (audacity) to make your opinions known, then “the system” will give you a platform to communicate from, and you are the one who gets heard.
    Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that your ideas or opinions were any more worthwhile than anyone else’s. So what we get on this site, which is much more obvious in the mainstream, is psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and social workers trying to tell us what works and what doesn’t in the field of mental health.
    I think a fundamental tenet of the “patient’s” rights movement, as well as the civil rights movement and several other grassroots-type movements is that the recipients of the “care” should also be heard and their experiences taken seriously.
    As an uncertified intellectual, I run into this problem all the time. For those with important stories that have no aspirations to intellectuality, their potential contributions tend to go unnoticed unless someone at least on the level of “journalist” seeks them out and gives them a voice. That is part of the magic of Robert’s work, and this website.
    With all that said, I have run into many “fringe” psychiatrists who I’ve never seen mentioned in the mainstream, and don’t tend to be treated on sites like this, either: Eric Berne, John E. Mack and Ian Stevenson are three that come to mind. I am sure there are others. But they are but the tip of the iceberg of a huge number of persons who have looked with varying degrees of carefulness at the human condition, reported their findings, and been promptly forgotten by everyone except those who ran across those reports and were profoundly affected by them. I have not seen many of those people covered here, either.
    To cut this short, this is how I see it: Neither “radical” psychiatry, nor probably psychology either, are going to dig us out from underneath the great mass of misunderstanding regarding the human condition. That goes also for biology or neuroscience. But a willingness to look beyond the usual boundaries, beyond the familiar footworn platforms of our times and of times past, could bring new interest, new and interesting confusions, and new answers to the subject before us. And I, for one, would welcome that.

    • I agree with you, except that a professional degree alone doesn’t convey the privilege of being heard – that privilege quickly evaporates as soon as you challenge the necessary status quo belief system, as Peter Breggin, Fred Baughman, John Read and many others can attest.

      • If you challenge the mainstream, your acceptance on the mainstream platforms goes to hell, of course. That doesn’t mean you lose a platform entirely, though. Dr. Breggin still has a website, and this site is willing to publish his writings. Same is true for the others, I believe. It’s not true for everyone. I know some people who died early, got put in jail or in other ways shut down…

        Even though Breggin and the others are cut off from the mainstream, I still put extra value in what they have to say, just because of their credentials. And I think others do, too.

    • “…. But a willingness to look beyond the usual boundaries, beyond the familiar footworn platforms of our times and of times past, could bring new interest, new and interesting confusions, and new answers to the subject before us. And I, for one, would welcome that.”

      I’m not sure what this willingness looks like. So we can talk “about” those who are “different”, but with new interest and possibilities?
      My question is, who do I get to “talk about”. It seems I need a PHD and some status to get my ideas heard, about those other people.
      And why should my “idea” have impact when it comes to others?

      • Here’s an example that is already very much out on the internet: Past life recall. Would you be willing to look into this subject on the internet (or by other means, though these days the internet is certainly primary)? That’s the kind of willingness I’m talking about. That’s the kind of willingness that the mainstream just doesn’t have.

        When I look at people “talking” on the internet, it is usually in the form of telling their own story. I think this is a more valuable form of communication than trying to tell someone else’s story for them. The internet gives us ways to tell our own stories (people do it on this site all the time) and that is something valuable about it. You see enough different people telling their stories and you begin to build up an overall picture of common experience. Researchers, journalists, etc., are given a special license to tell other people’s stories for them. This can be helpful if the others could not speak for themselves. But it can be harmful if the “professional” has an agenda that he or she is filtering these stories through. We can realize, though, that while the “professional” may appear to be speaking for others, he in reality is also telling his own story.

  8. Fanon was a great revolutionary/anti-colonial thinker operating within the paradigms of his time. While it is a falsehood that the solution is “adjusting” people to any system rather than overthrowing that system. But understanding ones emotional suffering in terms of racism or other externally imposed oppression is important. It just doesn’t have to be considered “therapy” to help people achieve such understanding; it could just as easily be considered consciousness-raising.

    • I append this statement in light of the revelations Sylvain brings to the table. Fanon made enormous contributions to the understanding of colonialism and its affect on the 3rd World psyche, but obviously was wrought with deadly contradictions as well. He served colonialism with every jolt of ECT. I thought he was mainly a theorist and writer. Never read “Wretched of the Earth” but always thought I should; it’s much further down on the list now.

    • In this case I would go with the baby vs. bathwater theory as I know Fanon did articulate some profound truths about colonialism and its effect on the 3rd World psyche, and many oppressed people respect his insights. These can’t be credibly challenged by “white” people. Where he took those insights in terms of applying them to actual human beings was clearly a catastrophic and deadly misstep; he accepted and embraced the “mental health” paradigm, which is a dead end in analytical, ideological and moral terms.

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