Documentary on 1950s Soviet psychiatry

Channel 4 have been putting a number of classic documentaries online, including an optimistic film by legendary American documentary maker Albert Maysles on Soviet psychiatry in 1950s Russia.

The film is interesting historically for a number of reasons, perhaps, most pertinently, because it presents a counter-example to the known abuses of Soviet psychiatry of the time. It is also a striking contrast to American psychiatry of the same period.

Apart from a few isolated examples, the department at Washington University being the most famous, American psychiatry was dominated by Freudians and a psychoanalytic approach to understanding mental illness.

This meant it was largely led by office-based psychiatrists who mostly eschewed biological and scientific approaches to treatment and who mainly treated depression and anxiety.

In contrast, the Maysles documentary notes that Russian psychiatry was largely based on a Pavlovian (behaviourist) approach to mental illness that put a significant emphasis on neuroscience (e.g. the image is of a Russian psychiatrist checking a child’s Babinski reflex – a test of brain or spinal cord damage).

It was also heavily hospital-based, used drug treatments and was more likely to deal with people with schizophrenia and psychoses.

While the treatments themselves now look outmoded, it’s notable that American psychiatry now much more closely matches the Russian model.

Psychoanalysis is now on the fringes and mainstream orthodox psychiatry is largely drug-based, while most practitioners are likely to think of themselves as, at least in part, ‘applied neuroscientists’.

The film is also notable for being so positive about Soviet psychiatry when it was presumably deeply unfashionable, perhaps even career-limiting, for American film-makers to promote Russian initiatives.

Link to page and video link for Maysles film ‘Psychiatry in Russia’.

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