History of existential analysis in the UK

The contribution of the British school of existential analysis and psychotherapy

(based on Emmy van Deurzen’s chapter in Everyday Mysteries, second edition, 2010.)

The process of therapy is about…

‘the restoration of an unlived dimension of life, whether this is described as forgotten, denied, repressed, or abandoned.’ (Cohn, 2004:384)

It was with the work of R.D Laing that attention was first focused on what an existential approach might contribute to psychotherapy in Britain. While he did not formulate a specific existential form of psychotherapy, the popularity and acceptance of the existential approach has undoubtedly been boosted considerably by his work.  But it has only come into its own by more recent developments in the United Kingdom.  It was the work of both Ronald D. Laing and David Cooper that first highlighted the relevance of existentialism to psychotherapy, but their contribution stopped short at formulating a social critique and a deconstruction of established practice and did not propose a consistent and coherent existential alternative in its place.  Various therapists of different orientations who first came to London because of anti-psychiatry moved towards a more disciplined application of existential philosophies to psychotherapy over the years.  It was with the creation of the Society for Existential Analysis in London in 1988 and the launch of Existential Analysis, the Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis that these existential practitioners found a home and first acquired an umbrella organization for the existential approach as well as a forum for the expression of a range of diverse existential views.

History of the creation of existential therapy and the society for existential analysis.

Emmy van Deurzen founded the Society for Existential Analysis together with a group of colleagues who were enthusiastic about existential therapy and who had mostly been students or staff at the School of Psychotherapy at Regent’s College, which Emmy had also set up.  The impulse for the creation of SEA came from her disappointment with the lack of an organized existential scene, when she arrived from France in London to work with the anti-psychiatrists in the late seventies.  She was perturbed by the lack of communication between Ronnie Laing, David Cooper, Joe Berke and Aaron Esterson, which had led to fragmentation of the existential movement. She took the view that this hampered the development of the existential approach considerably.  Though there was a lot of creativity around no one was actually formulating consistent principles of how to do existential work with the residents of the therapeutic communities.  When she gave a talk to the Arbours Association in 1977 together with her then husband Dr. Jean-Pierre Fabre, they entitled it: ‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, after the French national motto. The talk recapped the psychotherapeutic ideals they had formulated through their reading of the anti-psychiatry literature and which they had previously implemented in their work in the psychiatric communities in France where they had worked together during the early seventies (the psychiatric hospital of Font D’Aurelle in Montpellier, the revolutionary hospital of Saint-Alban in the Lozère and the Psychotherapeutic Centre of La Candélie in Agen).

Emmy had previously written up some of these ideas in her master’s thesis in philosophy, under the tutelage of the French phenomenologist Michel Henry (Fabre van Deurzen, 1975) and had expanded on them during her training and master’s thesis in clinical psychology. It was disappointing to her, after giving up a career in France to join with the British movement of anti-psychiatry, that so few of the original values were actively implemented in the London therapeutic communities. The talk they gave therefore vigorously suggested that there should be greater emphasis on existential principles. Emmy began to work out what exactly these principles were and gave a talk to the Netherne Psychiatric Hospital in Coulsdon, in early 1978 in which she expanded on them.  This formulation of her ideas about existential therapy were mainly based on Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Scheler’s, Sartre’s, Merleau Ponty’s and Laing’s work as well as being strongly inspired by the ideas of Michel Henry (1969, 1975, 1987, 2002). These philosophical principles also formed the basis of her interventions at the Arbours crisis centre as described in Fabre’s thesis for his speciality in psychiatry (Fabre, 1978). Meanwhile Joe Berke took up the challenge and he invited Emmy to co-teach the first seminar on existential psychotherapy in the Arbours training programme, together with Dr. Andrea Sabbadini, a psychologist who had come over from Italy with his wife to work with the Arbours. They co-taught this seminar in early 1978 and Emmy continued to develop and to teach this course by herself during the next year.  Somehow the idea of using philosophy as the basis for specific therapeutic interventions had not been part of the anti-psychiatry scene up to that point and trainees responded to it gratefully, since it gave them concrete parameters for a new approach. The Zeitgeist had been stronger in terms of giving permission to not give psychiatric treatment than on clearly describing alternative interventions. In the Philadelphia Association training programme at that time there were no specific formulations of existential therapy either, though there were many interesting seminars on related existential issues. The trend here was towards French Lacanian psychoanalysis, something Emmy was all too familiar with from her work in France. By contrast the trend in the Arbours was towards a neo-Kleinian approach, which seemed quite far removed from existential therapy, since it was deeply interpretative in nature. There was a lack of leadership in terms of the existential approach as Laing himself had become much more interested in birth trauma and implantation issues than in developing an existential method that could be taught to trainees and implemented in the therapeutic communities. There was a real need for such a formulation.  The trainees at the Arbours were eager for the existential input and the existential seminars were a resounding success.  Emmy had scoured the libraries for text books to base all this on and had found very little to go on.  Rollo May’s Existence (1958) provided little besides the excellent Binswanger and Minkowski case studies and some clear general theory.  She decided to start from scratch and to base the work mostly on applied philosophical thinking, verified by her professional experience.  The best bibliographical resource she found was Mucchieli’s book ‘Analyse existentielle et psychothérapie phénoméno-structurale’, (Mucchieli, 1967), which she read avidly, but which had not been translated into English. She used Mary Warnock’s little book on Existentialism as the course text book.  Later on she became acquainted with Boss’ work, but she had no access to this initially and later on found it too analytical in nature.  Yalom had not yet published any of his existential work at this time.

Having acquired a reputation for philosophical innovation Emmy was now offered a job as lecturer in existential psychology at Antioch University, London, where John Andrew Miller and Steve Gans (of the Philadelphia Association) had just set up a Masters programme in Humanistic Psychology. She joined wholeheartedly and was appointed Associate Director a year later.  Her existential approach was vigorously developed during this period as she also started teaching it, in distilled and eminently pragmatic form, in workshops on existential counselling skills for the students of the Diploma in Counselling at South West London College, a pioneering course which was based on person centered and learning community principles and which was directed by Brigid Proctor, who encouraged and nurtured new ideas and initiatives.  Emmy’s work gained much from her exposure to and discussions with person centered and Gestalt based colleagues during this period. She published the principles of her version of Existential Therapy (ET) for the first time in Dryden’s Handbook of Individual Therapy in Britain (van Deurzen-Smith, 1984). The next phase of development of the approach was interwoven with upheavals and crises. During a financial crisis at Antioch University the Humanistic MA was threatened with closure, and several colleagues resigned. Emmy persisted and her efforts paid off in 1982, when she was given the opportunity of creating a new programme for Antioch University, called the MA in the Psychology of Therapy and Counselling, which was fundamentally based on an existential approach to psychotherapy. This programme slowly grew into a substantial and viable psychotherapy training programme and in 1985, with its move from Islington to the recently deserted campus of Bedford College in Regent’s Park, re-baptised Regent’s College, it began to thrive. In the lush surroundings of the park it was possible to start other existential courses and build up an entire psychology department, for which Emmy negotiated a merger with Regent’s College in 1988, shortly before the founding of the Society for Existential Analysis. The actual founding of the Society came about through a series of lectures she had been trying to arrange for Syracuse University and some other American Universities which had their base in the College. The idea was to introduce these students to anti-psychiatry and she had spoken with Ronnie Laing, Joe Berke, Leon Redler, Steve Gans and some others about them making a contribution to a series of seminars for these students. When the seminars fell through at the eleventh hour she suggested the setting up of a Society that would provide a platform for future meetings and that would serve as a reference point for all those interested in the existential approach.  This was generally considered a good idea, though some expressed scepticism about the possibility of mending the splits that existed in the field. Emmy believed this was reason the more for persisting.  It meant a lot to her to have been given the blessings of Ronnie Laing and Joe Berke, who were the senior leaders of the two groupings at that time.  But it was John Heaton who supported the founding of SEA most strongly as he came to the first meeting in July 88 at Regent’s College, where a substantial group of interested members of staff and students as well as some like minded outsiders had gathered to come to set up the Society, of which Emmy was elected founding chair. It was the enthusiasm of the officers and the steering committee that made the SEA into a success during those first delicate years, especially the work of Eve Dolphin, the first honorary secretary, Arthur Jonathan, the first honorary treasurer, Carol Siederer, then Van Artsdalen, and Elena Zanger, as editors of the first journal. Many people put in long hours and contributed much, for instance Luci Moja Strasser and Freddie Strasser, who gave unstinting support in organizing conferences and fora, workshops and video recordings.  Of course the success of the SEA was down to the efforts of many more people over the years, including the subsequent chairs, Ernesto Spinelli, Mike Harding, Paul Smith-Pickard and Paul McGinley.

The first conference of the Society was held on 3d December 1988, just two weeks before a huge crisis hit Regent’s College, which was the Lockerbie plane bombing, in which a number of Regent’s College students died. They had been part of the programme of Syracuse University and had lived in the same building where the existential courses were held. They enthusiastically waved goodbye as they left that morning of 21st December on their way home to the USA for Christmas.  The awfulness and sadness of their young deaths was a reminder of the importance of a therapeutic approach that could take death into its stride. The Society became firmly established as a place where life and death issues could be debated and understood in a spirit of openness and mutual respect.  In the wake of this terrible tragedy the College also came to the edge of bankruptcy as over the next months many American parents withdrew their children from overseas’ studies. The existential courses nearly folded when the College was suddenly taken over by a private management company.  But with characteristic vigour Emmy persuaded the new management to give her a chance and she was allowed to establish the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, as an independent entity, of which she became a Company Director and Dean. She forged links with City University, which began validating her courses and also ensured professional accreditation by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy by becoming a very active Council member of the United Kingdom Standing Conference for Psychotherapy. This took her to being its external relations officer and finally the first chair of UKCP, as the national psychotherapy register was launched.  The next seven years were a rush of hard and intense work as the existential approach was experiencing major construction work in the UK.

The launch of the Society had followed on closely from the publication of Emmy’s first  book Existential Counselling in Practice, with Sage (van Deurzen-Smith, 1988).   This had been ten years in the writing, inspired as it was by her teaching at Antioch University and South West London College. It was intended as a text for the hundreds of students who were now being trained in the existential approach each year and put the approach firmly on the map in the UK. Emmy soon persuaded Sage to publish Spinelli’s book on Phenomenological Psychology as well (Spinelli, 1989) and these two books for numerous years were the backbone of the Regent’s courses.  It is hard to remember now just how difficult it was to promote the existential approach in those early days when there were so few publications to back it up and people used to raise their eyebrows at the word ‘existential’ or ‘phenomenological’ as if they doubted your sanity. While Yalom’s publication of Existential Psychotherapy in 1981 had made a start in providing much needed American support, this book was only really noticed in Britain after he had published his case studies.  The momentum for the growth of the existential approach in Britain truly came from the combination of having an active Society for Existential Analysis and a number of good training courses that would actually lead to registration. It was this that made it possible to reclaim the philosophical roots of the existential approach in a radical manner. It was something that had not happened anywhere before. The existential approach was finally put on the map in a way that neither May’s nor Laing’s work had been able to do.  Now many people rallied round.  Tom Szasz, who had met Emmy van Deurzen at a conference in the late seventies, came to deliver a talk for the Society in early 1989 and Ronnie Laing agreed to be the star of the December conference during that same year.  It was going to be entitled ‘Demystifying Psychotherapy’ and he promised he would finally address the question of how the existential therapist was to proceed in practice.  It was not to be, for Laing died unexpectedly that summer and the second conference became a memorial conference for him instead at which his son, Adrian gave a paper on his life and work.


By then other publications were forthcoming, as a direct result of the launch of SEA, Ernesto Spinelli’s first book was rapidly followed by a spree of other publications by Spinelli (1994, 1997, 2001, 2007), Hans Cohn joined the Society and started teaching for Regent’s College, which led to his Heideggerian publications (1993, 1994, 1997, 2002).   John Heaton (1990, 1994),  Anthony Stadlen (1989), Freddie and Alison Strasser (1997) and Simon  du Plock (1995,1997) also contributed new texts.  Alongside these new voices Emmy continued to formulate her own growing body of work (Deurzen 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008,) as well as editing and writing books together with colleagues (Deurzen and Arnold-Baker, 2005, Deurzen and Kenward, 2005, Deurzen and Young 2009, Deurzen and Adams, 2011). Perhaps most importantly the approach continued to develop and expand across the rest of Europe as well.  Interest was generated across Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and societies were founded in Denmark, Sweden, Eastern Europe, Portugal and elsewhere in the world, including in Mexico and Latin America.  The formulation of the philosophical form of existential therapy that is typical of the British School continued to evolve in complex and varied ways. A number of academic and research centres were established.  The Journal of the Society for Existential, edited over the years by Hans Cohn, John Heaton and Greg Madison, but always in partnership with Simon du Plock, became a force to be reckoned with.  It continues to articulate and accumulate all this evolving knowledge and expertise, drawing in more and more authors and members of the editorial board from around the world.  Many younger authors have also emerged through the training courses and have made contributions of their own, for instance Eleftheriadou (1994) and Lemma (1992, 1994, 1997).  There are numerous others who have contributed papers to the Journal or to the edited books, including Lucia Moja Strasser, Anthony and Naomi Stadlen, Diana Mitchell, Nick Kirkland-Handley, Richard Swynnerton, Martin Adams (see van Deurzen and Arnold-Baker, 2005 and van Deurzen and Young, 2009) , Paul Smith-Pickard (2004, 2005,2006) and Mike Harding (2003, 2004).

Some of the most interesting new developments have come from slightly tangential approaches, such as Digby Tantam’s existential narrative approach (2002, 2008), Greg Madison’s focusing based approach (in van Deurzen and Arnold-Baker 2005), the eco-psychological approach of Martin Milton (1997, 2000, 2005) and the philosophically based approaches of Tim Le Bon ( 2001), Antonia Macaro (2006) and also Alex Howard (2000). The work of some other authors in the UK dovetailed with these existential developments, including the work of David Smail (1978, 1987, 1993), Peter Lomas (1981) Chris Mace (1999) and Pat Bracken (2002)  Perhaps though most notably Mick Cooper published his text book on Existential Therapies (2003), in which he compared and contrasted the British school with other forms and schools of existential therapy, creating that meta level of thinking about the existential approach that took it into the mainstream.

History of the splits

One of the strengths of existential therapy is its openness to diversity and its lack of systematisation, allowing for fluidity, variety and personal input. This has led to a process of continuous dynamic tension and expansion, when different contributors have disagreed with each other.  This has created a stimulating and vibrant intellectual climate. This creative tension however became destructive for a period because of the political controversy over van Deurzen’s unfair dismissal from Regent’s College in 1996 after she challenged the fiduciary practices of its President.  Severed and banned from the School that she had founded and had invested so much of her professional and personal life into, she was determined to survive and to create a new school that would be based purely on existential principles.  With support from Schiller International University and London City College, she co-founded the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling together with Digby Tantam and with the help of Freddie Strasser and Claire Arnold-Baker and a number of others. Sadly within months she found herself being prosecuted and imprisoned in her own office for an afternoon while a draconian Anton Pillar order meant that solicitors could impound her computers and paperwork and raid both her office and her home, as she was taken to the High Court by Regent’s College Management Services (now defunct), falsely accused of stealing their courses and students.  After weeks of wrangling in the High Court her name was wholly cleared and she received some financial compensation for her unfair dismissal, but was forced to sign a gagging order, which stopped her discussing or publicising what had been done to her. This order was rescinded de facto when the illegal financial practices she had exposed finally came to light more than ten years later as Regent’s College Management Services were challenged and disbanded and the President was dismissed.  During these ten years Emmy struggled to establish the New School, having to compete with her own former success at Regent’s College and hampered by the isolation the court case had plunged her into.  Given all these disadvantages, the New School took a long time to take root, as it lacked resources and had to establish its own reputation for excellence. It ultimately flourished because it embodied the heroic battle with adversity so central to existential thinking and because it was founded in that true but rare existential pioneering spirit in which questioning, deep thinking can thrive in a spirit of community.

Training courses

There are many other courses now that include existential elements of training.  The New School itself is now partnered with Middlesex University, as is Metanoia, which also offers some existential training, as do Surrey University, Brighton University, Strathclyde University, Roehampton University, City University and Sheffield University. Existential therapy itself is becoming a household name and there are numerous mental health and therapeutic services both in the voluntary and public sector that specialize in the approach (see for instance Barnet, 2009).  Existential therapists trained at these institutions are accepted for registration with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and are able to complete doctoral level training in the existential field.   The European Commission also offered its support to existential therapy training in the form of several Leonardo and Socrates grants to a partnership of the University of Sheffield, Dilemma Consultancy and the New School together with various other countries and universities in Europe, including Sweden, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Romania, Italy, Belgium, France and Portugal.  This e-based training programme is known as Septimus (www.dilemmatraining.com) and has trained many therapists throughout Europe and the wider world in elements of the existential approach.

As has been already implied the particular characteristic of the British School is to see the existential approach as deeply embedded in continental philosophy. Training always includes some and usually extensive exposure to a range of philosophical ideas, but also takes in a variety of other psychotherapeutic approaches. A critical appraisal is thus encouraged and independence of thinking is fostered. It is this spirit of openness to debate and integration of various perspectives that best characterizes the British School’s approach.  Of course there will always be a tendency towards a closing of the mind and an escape towards a secure and rigidly defined and defended base, as there is in all walks of life.  Mick Cooper’s book Existential Therapies (2003) discusses some of the tensions and differences that exist and summarizes what the British contribution entails in contrast with other existential schools.

More recently it is the international impact of the British School of Existential Therapy that has become obvious. The Society for Existential Analysis has many international members and sends its Journal right around the world. It is affiliated to the International Federation for Daseinsanalysis and partnered with the International Collaborative of Existential Counsellors and Psychotherapists (ICECAP), which was founded on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary conference of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling.  ICECAP brings together existential practitioners from around the globe.  Several of the senior figures of the British School, including, Spinelli, du Plock, Tantam, Madison and van Deurzen, lecture worldwide on existential psychotherapy and have helped create similar new schools in a variety of other European, East European and other countries, including Israel, Mexico and Australia.

Another important development is that several research groups have recently been established to demonstrate the effectiveness of existential therapy.  A partnership, EPCORN (Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling Outcome Research Network) was created between the Universities of Surrey, Abertay, Strathclyde, Sheffield and Middlesex.  Much emphasis is likely to be placed on such research in future as several doctoral programmes in existential psychotherapy and counselling psychology are now in place and are establishing a solid research base in the field.  This will be increasingly important if Existential Therapy (ET) is to become a player in a world where regulation and evidence based practice is the order of the day.  It is to be hoped that this will not undermine or destroy the essential spirit of humanity and search for truth without reliance on technology that is so dear to existential therapists.

7 thoughts on “History of existential analysis in the UK

  1. Dear Mrs. Van Deurzen,

    I just bought your book Dictionary of Exist…, written with your colleague Mr. Kenward.
    It looks great, and I’ll put it on my coming small ABC on my site (now under construction… http://www.vrijmoedt.nl.

    I have a question… Is there in Holland/NL network about existential counselling and therapy.
    I participate in Socratic dialogueing in Rotterdam (NL).

    My c.v.; 70 yrs old, former lecturer on org. theory and interpersonal skills.

    • Hi

      Nice to hear from you. There are some existential therapists in the Netherlands, but no organized movement. A colleague of mine from London, David Dickey-Collas works in the Netherlands and he might know more.
      David Dickey-Collas

  2. Hi professor Deurzen, just watched some of your videos – thanks for your humanity. If I had found your work sooner, my life would be different.

    I am beginning licensing work as a therapist after phd in research Psychology. I have good background in existentialism (actually started reading RD Laing, Rollo May etc. while still in High School). I have started rereading Sartre and Camus and have concrete ideas about what I would like to do. Because of my interest in politics, the work Erich Fromm’s work is particularly important for me.

    I am happy I came across your work. I would like to speak to you if it is possible. I have watched a number of videos and trying to decide the best place to obtain training as an existential therapist – after I satisfy basic requirements.

    Thank you.

  3. I’ve just read your story and want to take my metaphorical hat off to you for all you’ve done, and fought for. It’s inspiring. I’m a psychodynamic psychotherapist with a metapsychological bent – it seems to me that psychodynamic psychotherapy has become middle-aged and complacent, and I would be delighted if I can do a quarter of what you’ve done for existential psychology in reinvigorating psychodynamic thinking.
    Thank you!

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