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A romp through Hampstead’s psychoanalytic past

PUBLISHED: 07:01 17 February 2012

Prof Mary Target history of psychoanalysis Pictured at The Freud Museum

Prof Mary Target history of psychoanalysis Pictured at The Freud Museum

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

As Keira Knightley latest film A Dangerous Method offers cinema goers a glimpse into the life of Carl Jung, founding father of psychoanalysis, reporter Kate Ferguson looks at Hampstead’s rich tradition in the field.

Timeline of psychotherapy in Hampstead

1920 The Tavistock Clinic was founded by Dr Hugh Crichton-Miller to treat shell-shocked First World War soldiers.

1938 Founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and his family move to 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, to escape the Nazis.

1947 Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic founded by Anna Freud to treat children traumatized by the Blitz. This later moved and became known as the Anna Freud Centre.

1956 Ronald Laing joined the Tavistock Institute, where his lecturers included the eminent child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. He later broke with the Institute and set up the Philadelphia Association.

Psychotherapy grew out of an attempt to explain and overcome trauma, so it is perhaps fitting that its roots were laid down in Hampstead during the Second World War.

Sigmund Freud moved his practice to Maresfield Gardens in 1938 having fled Nazi persecution in his native Vienna.

A decade later, Anna Freud set up a centre carrying her name in 1948 to work with children traumatised by the Blitz.

“The Anna Freud Centre had a traumatic beginning in that sense, and many of the psychotherapists working in the area at the time had themselves been uprooted by the war,” said Professor Mary Target, of the Anna Freud Centre in Maresfield Gardens.

This émigré community mingled with London’s home grown therapists at larger institutes such as the Tavistock Clinic in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, and set up their own practices to create a psychotherapy hub of world renown.

Today, troubled children aged as young as three are dropped off at the Anna Freud Centre to speak to a psychotherapist, often four times a week.

“It might be very aggressive play or sexual play, or it could be a lack of play they are exhibiting,” Prof Target explained.

“Through getting to know and playing with the child and trying to understand what is going on in the child’s mind, it is possible to find out more about what is more deeply troubling them.”

The extension of psychoanalysis from adults on a therapist’s couch, to young children who share their feelings while playing with toy animals, is a controversial one.

But Prof Target insists these sessions offer a crucial insight into some very troubled youngsters.

A willingness to risk riling the establishment in the pursuit of cutting-edge therapies has always existed among Hampstead’s analysts.

Among the most notable was Eton Road resident Ronald Laing, who at the peak of his popularity in the 1960s toured the world giving lectures and television interviews on psychoanalysis.

Setting up in a vicarage opposite his Eton Road home, Laing would guide up to 40 people at a time through a “rebirthing” ritual, which intended to emulate and help participants overcome their birthing trauma.

Now widely discredited, the ceremonies held a deep resonance among Laing’s legion of followers.

But psychiatrists are warning their work has fallen out of favour.

Pointing to a return to biological explanations of mental illness and the growth in therapy that concentrates on changing someone’s behaviour rather than the underlying causes, they warn the future looks bleak for psychotherapy.

As Paul Gordon, an analyst with the Hampstead High Street based Philadelphia Association puts it, “biological psychiatry has triumphed”.

Many centres are fighting for survival following a shake-up of NHS funding, while others are changing their practices to respond to the new orthodoxy that shorter treatment can mean better treatment.

“Psychoanalysis is coming of age in respect of offering shorter treatment timetables,” said Professor Alessandra Lemma, of the Tavistock Clinic.

“But to retain our vital contribution to mental health we must engage in more research and prove our treatment gets results.”

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