UCL/BPS Seminar, 6pm 23rd February 2015

Sarah Marks ‘Communist Psychiatries? Neurasthenia and Modernization in Czechoslovakia and East Germany’


The question of whether there was such a thing as a ‘Communist Psychiatry’ is still an unanswered historical question. In the Soviet satellites of Central Europe there were cases where psychiatric research and practice appeared untouched by ideology, such as the psychoanalytic LSD psychotherapy projects in Prague, or Karl Leonhard’s development of a genetic aetiology of mental disorder in East Berlin. Yet there are other cases in which psychiatrists attempted to create an approach to mental health that accorded with the philosophies and priorities of the regime. This paper will examine one of the most coherent ‘Communist’ approaches to psychiatry in the region.

From the end of the 1950s a plethora of publications came out on the subject of neurosis and its prevention within medical research journals, as well as popular pamphlets and ‘lifestyle magazines’. Many actively continued to use the term ‘neurasthenia’, a category which most historians have claimed had fallen out of use in European medicine by the 1930s. This was illustrative of increasing concern about the effects of the ‘Scientific-Technological Revolution’ on the health of socialist nations, particularly with regard to the impact of automatization and new chemical and machine processes in factories and agriculture, as well as the impact this had upon management and labour-relations. Industrial progress was fundamental to Communism, yet there was increasing evidence to show that it had detrimental effects on mental and physical health. This could, in turn, affect marital and family matters, producing a counterproductive effect that threatened the national economy. This paper explores the debates and surrounding mental health, tracing the importance of discourses around ‘environment’ in the context of Pavlovian psychiatry, and later dialogues with ‘Western’ theories of human ecology, cybernetics, and Frankfurt School Marxism. I also discuss the professionalization and official endorsement of autogenic and relaxation therapies within this framework. Finally, I illustrate the appropriation of these concerns for propaganda purposes, showing how socialist states used their active role in prevention and intervention in mental health to morally elevate themselves above Capitalist nations.

Organiser: Professor Sonu Shamdasani (UCL)

Open to all, supported by the British Psychological Society

Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.

Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.

 From the Torrington Place entrance to UCL, enter the campus on Malet Place. After fifty metres, you will find Foster court on the right hand side. Turn right under the underpass, and enter via the second door on the right. The common room is straight ahead.


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