A romp through Hampstead’s psychoanalytic past

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.

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.


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This �migr� 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.

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“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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