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May 8, 2021


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.


Programme Two: Fraser House - Modelling Nature in a TC"

David Cruise [DC] I am David Cruise in Melbourne Australia for Radio TC International. 'Fraser House' is a series of Programs about Dr Neville Yeomans – the founder of the Fraser House psychiatric Therapeutic Community in Australia. This extraordinary unit ran from 1959 to 1968 and was responsible for introducing many psychosocial innovations into Australian society. The series introduces doctoral research into Neville Yeomans' work by Les Spencer a behavioural scientist and sociologist. I have Les with me in the studio.

In our first program Les introduced his research and briefly outlined some of the innovations that led to Fraser House patients having profound changes in their lives.

Les perhaps you could start by giving us Neville's academic background

Les Spencer [LS] Neville's first degree was studying life and living systems. He then completed a degree in medicine and followed up with the study of psychiatry. He also completed post-graduate studies in sociology and psychology. Later he completed a law degree specializing in humanitarian law. This rather busy character also studied Indonesian and Chinese languages. Neville also read extensively in anthropology.

Perhaps you could give listeners a succinct portrait of what life in Fraser House was like.

LS Neville was very influenced by Australian Indigenous healing ways – what Australian Psychiatrist John Cawte called socio-medicine. For Indigenous people living as nomadic hunter-gatherers on this continent, social cohesion is a central component of healing and vice versa. Neville spoke about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living traditional lives – for them, bush remedies for a wide range of troubles are both widely known and widely used. However, if in these contexts sickness is deemed to have its source in social trouble - if social cohesion is under threat – what we would call sociomedicine is used by only a few law people who know the ways. So, influenced by indigenous practices, Neville evolved Fraser House assuming a social basis of mental illness. Regardless of conventional diagnosis, in Fraser House it was assumed that dysfunctional patients would have a dysfunctional inter-personal family friendship network. This networked dysfunctionality was the focus of change in Fraser House. In practice this was confirmed. New patients typically did have dysfunctional inter-personal family friendship networks Consistent with this, the Fraser House process was sociologically oriented. It was based upon a social model of mental dis-ease and a social model of change to ease and wellbeing.

Neville said that he and all involved in Fraser House worked with the notion that the patients' life difficulties were in the main, from 'cracks' in society, not in them. Neville took this social basis of mental illness not out of any ignorance of diagnosis. Neville was a government advisor on psychiatric diagnosis as a member of the Committee of Classification of Psychiatric Patterns of the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

I sense another important thing in coming to understand Fraser House was that Neville modelled the unit on how nature works as a complex living system.

Neville modelled Fraser House in many ways on his father's work in sustainable agriculture – what his father callled 'Keyline'.

Neville adapted Keyline as 'Cultural Keyline' in the psychosocial arena. 'Cultural Keyline' was Neville's term.

Neville sensed every aspect of Fraser House as a complex inter-related, inter-connected, inter-dependent, and interwoven living system and I will keep returning to this theme during these programs.

Neville had what I call a highly evolved connexity perception, and connexity is this relationship of being inter-connected, inter-dependent, inter-related, and interwoven simultaneously. And Neville had the capacity to sense that in a very highly developed way.

Another aspect is that for Neville, location was fundamental. Just as the shape and location of land was important to his father, place and location was fundamental in Fraser House. For example, knowing the location of the resident's place of living, and using this information, was linked to expanding the patient's support networks. The focus of change at Fraser House was the resident-in-their-family/friendship network in their own locality.

As an indicator of mutual support groups, patients typically arrived at Fraser House with a small dysfunctional family–friend network - typically about 3-5 people. When patients left Fraser House - typically after around only12 weeks - they usually had a functional network of around 70 people.

DC 70!

LS Yes! And there were very good reasons for this dramatic growth. A condition of residency at Fraser House was that the prospective resident had to attend the Unit's Big and Small therapy groups twelve times - along with members of their family-friendship network - before the prospective resident would be admitted.

Each visit, the members of the person's network would have to sign on as outpatients of Fraser House. This meant that all of the members of the network were thoroughly inducted into the Unit's group processes and value system of the place before formal admittance. A further condition was that the members of the family-friend network had to commit to continuing as outpatients regularly attending the groups from then on.

Another reason for this massive increase in patients' support network can be traced to having small group therapy meetings where patients and outpatients were allocated to groups by locality. Friendships with others from their own localities would form naturally through constant contact and through sharing intense experience within the groups.

DC Les, could you speak briefly about the nature of the groups.


Yes, as I said in the first program, there were both Big Groups and Small Groups.

Big Groups were big – they typically had 180 people attending, and there was a peak of attendance of over 300.

Fraser House pioneered very large group therapy making use of crowd and audience effects for change work.

Neville and the Fraser House I interviewed said that Big Group was exhausting for everyone, though attending became a must – it was so engaging.

Big Group was strictly one hour and held five days a week in the morning and again in the evening.

All staff present in Fraser House at the time would attend – had to attend, including the cleaners as well as patients, out-patients and visitors.

In fact Fraser House groups had many visitors - church leaders, senior business people, academics, senior public servants, even a member from the Department of Foreign Affairs – and the reason for this - Fraser House had become the most significant social science research unit in Australia at the time – and it was very well known.

DC You mentioned big and small groups, when were the small groups held.

LS Well immediately after Big Group there was a supper break for half and hour and then the small groups were held for another hour.

During the supper break the staff had their supper separately. For the others, supper was another time for building social support networks and friendships generally

At the start of each Big Group two staff were appointed as observers to monitor process in Big Groups.

These two would give their feedback to staff during the supper. Feedback was provided on the use of themes within Big Group, the group mood, group values and tension, and the process used by the Group Leader.

This review would then be discussed by all staff present.

Initially, Neville ran Big Group and he himself was constantly scanning the group and sensing group process in respect of the same things being reviewed in the following staff meeting.

To get a sense for how themes emerged within Big Group, day sheets were filled out by patients and outpatients prior to the start of Big Group starting - and these acted like a community newsletter, and Big Group started with a public reading of the day sheet.

Now Neville allowed themes conducive to coherence among group members to emerge from this daily reading of the Day Sheet.

So in having all staff exploring theme and how it was used in Big Group, and the tension, and the values, and the mood, and his process, Neville was increasing staff member's understanding of what he himself was doing, and the processes he was evolving – and he was evolving them as things went on because no-one had done this before, including Neville.

The review increased the capacity of others to lead both Big and small groups, and a number of staff began running Big Groups. I interviewed three of them.

After a number of years even experienced patients ran big group!

DC Well thanks again, Les. That's been most interesting and I look forward to our next program

LS Thanks David.

DC Listeners you can find Les' Cultural Keyline thesis on Fraser House on Internet at www.laceweb.org.au

I am David Cruise for Radio TC International and my Guest today has been Les Spencer from Melbourne, Australia

Programme Three: Fraser House - Patients as Skilled Therapists

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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