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