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October 30, 2020


A series of programmes about Fraser House, a total therapeutic community in 1960s Australia, featuring David Cruise and Dr. Les Spencer, a behavioural scientist and sociologist in Melbourne, Australia.


Program One: "Fraser House, a Total Therapeutic Community"

David Cruise [DC] This is the first in a series of programs about Fraser House, a total therapeutic community in the 1960's in Australia. I am David Cruise and I am with Les Spencer, a behavioural scientist and clinical sociologist here in Australia.

Les Spencer [LS]

Hi David

DC Perhaps you can start by telling me about to the work you have been doing.

LS Well I have just finished my doctoral thesis. It's called 'Cultural Keyline – The Life Work of Dr. Neville Yeomans'. Neville pioneered Therapeutic Community in Australia and many other things besides

DC How did you come to be doing this research, Les?

LS Well I met Neville in 1985 when he was leading a workshop on sensory submodalities, an NLP approach. He was just back from doing a workshop himself on the same subject with Steve and Connirae Andreas in the United states.

It was Neville's meticulous social ecology and attention to detail that really impressed me, because I had never experienced anyone like him before. At the time I had no idea of the extraordinary work he had been doing, and we met a number of times and I ended up having him as my mentor from 1986 onwards till his death in 2000.

I started the PhD research in July 1998.

DC And you have just finished - that's - seven and a half years!

LS Well, there were many challenging aspects; there really was.

DC Well that will no doubt come out as we proceed with this series – so lets get directly to your findings Les.

LS Yes! Well, Neville was the founding Director of Fraser House, and it was set up as a psychiatric therapeutic community in the grounds of North Ryde Psychiatric Hospital on the North Shore in Sydney, Australia in 1959.

As a Therapeutic Community Fraser House had many unique features.

A very important one was that this unit was modelled on nature – on the profound interconnectedness, the inter-relatedness and the inter-dependence in nature.

Neville sensed Fraser house as a living system, and incidentally, it was this comprehensive inter-wovenness that so impressed Margaret Mead.

DC That's Mead the anthropologist?

LS Yes, she visited Fraser House in the early 1960s and described the unit as the most total, the most complete Therapeutic Community she had ever visited anywhere in the world.

DC Margaret Mead was the founding director of the World Mental Health Federation so she would have had a great interest in what Neville was doing?

LS Yes she visited many therapeutic communities apparently, and this 'total' aspect of Fraser House she found very significant – total new and unique.

Also, this totalness was what prompted Maxwell Jones, one of the UK pioneers of TC to say words to the effect that Fraser Houses processes were SO total that ANYONE involved in Fraser House (including staff) HAD to change.

DC Well in this first program could you give an indication of the innovations that were evolved at Fraser House?

LS These processes were so effective that after the unit was going for 2 years, patients -actually the patients - were co-opted by the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry to provide training to new psychiatrists in the new subject Community Psychiatry. And this training was provided when these trainees were required to work at Fraser House for a couple of months to gain credits in this new area - community psychiatry.

Another indication of the patients talents as therapists, patients carried out assessment on other patients. In keeping with their therapist role, patients carried out initial and ongoing assessment and did it very skilfully indeed – I have read some of their reports and they're very very good.

Another indication of their therapist skills - patients conducted a 24 hour 7 days a week mobile suicide prevention program. And they were using a little red bus that was owned by the patients as a collective. A telephone counselling service was linked into this program, and I sense that was probably the first telephone counselling service in Australia and led to the ones that we now have operating.

Patients also used this same little red bus to conduct a domiciliary care program - where 5 patients would visit ex-patients to provide follow-up care – expatients who had already left Fraser House. So the ones who had not yet left were helping those who already had. And this was the start of domiciliary care in Australia through mental health services.

DC Where did this patients come from? How did they have some much expertise?

LS Well certainly they did not have all of this expertise when they first arrived – because they came to Fraser House from lunatic asylums - often the back wards of lunatic asylums, and from prisons, because they had, as Neville described to me, both the mad and the bad and the very worst ones at that. Neville had the fully range of psychiatric conditions and deviant behaviours among the patients when they arrived. And the patients and outpatients therapeutic competencies and experience were all evolved at Fraser House.

DC Perhaps you could tell us about the processes that were used

LS Yes! Well I will briefly run thru some of the process and we can discuss the implications of these more.

At Fraser House they evolved what they called Big Group therapy. 180 would be jammed into a rather small room.

And Big Group made use of crowd and audience effects.

Therapeutic communities right round the world make wide use of Small Groups. A unique feature of the way Small Groups were used at Fraser House was that people were allocated to groups based on sociological categories like age, sex, marital status and the like . Another innovation was the resocializing program – using what was called 'governance' therapy. Patient-based committees have been used widely in TCs. In FH this process was extended so that every aspect of the unit's administration was based on committees - where staff, patients and outpatients were members, and staff were outnumbered on every committee. This means that Patients in effect had a controlling voice. As a safeguard Neville had a right of veto and he rarely used it, he told me. The patients were effectively running the administration and they had the right feel on it, in Neville's opinion.

DC Were there other things Fraser House pioneered in Australia, Les?

LS Yes - well Neville and the others – everyone involved in Fraser House - evolved community psychology in the Australian context. Also that's where the psychiatric nursing role started, and what Neville called mediation therapy, evolved where 'mediation' is a descriptor of the therapy process.

DC Les, in listening to these things about Fraser House it seems to have been extremely different to mainstream psychiatry in the 1960's. How was it viewed by the establishment?

LS You're spot on. Fraser House was VERY unsettling to most psychiatrists and other health administrators. Neville was fortunate to have a few supporters in high places and the mood of the times in 1959 when he started was that innovation in lunatic asylums was really needed, so his timing was impeccable. A Royal Commission was been mooted at the time. And Neville took many steps to ensure Fraser House's survival. He knew that - and it was very apparent that - it was under attack all the time. There was an extensive internal and external research program that he had set up, so to crash Fraser House would have meant closing down an enormous amount of research and it would have been absolute upheaval.

And Neville was constantly engaging with the media, giving talks, getting articles written about what they were doing, and that sort of thing. So he was continually having Fraser House in front of the public.

And after Neville had amassed understandings and processes he wanted actually to extend these practices into wider society. So leading up to Neville leaving Fraser House he arranged for Fraser House to cease to exist in the form that it had, so that it did not continue as a massive distortion – you know - just parading as what it originally was. It actually ceased in1968. It continued as a community – but fundamentally changed. Mainstream psychiatry made it more mainstream

From Fraser House Neville evolved Community Mental Health in Australia. He wrote the actual job description and then applied for the job and became the first director of Community Mental Health.

DC How this was achieved and other aspects of Fraser House can be discussed in later programs. Our times up Les. I am David Cruise. I have been talking with Les Spencer in a series of programs on Fraser House, a total therapeutic community in Australia in the 1960's - David Cruise for Radio TC International.

Programme Two: Fraser House - Modelling Nature in a TC

Read the Script

Essential reading:

Dr. Les Spencer (2005), CULTURAL KEYLINE - The Life Work of Dr. Neville Yeomans, PhD. Thesis, School of Social Work and Community Welfare, James Cook University (Australia)

Email comments and questions to Les Spencer, for incorporation into later programmes: lspencre@alphalink.com.au

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