Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Frederick Hickling, revolutionary healer

Published:Monday | May 25, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Professor Emeritus Frederick Hickling was truly a man in a class by himself. A revolutionary psychiatrist in supposedly independent Jamaica, Hickling could clearly see the mind-blowing legacies of slavery and colonialism. Our history created the ideal conditions for cultivating madness. Hickling became a warner-man, forcing us to confront our collective trauma.

Hickling’s voice was distinctive. But it was not unique. He was one of the radical thinkers of the Caribbean and the wider Americas who understood the need to free ourselves from mental shackles. Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary psychiatrist from Martinique, was one of the intellectuals who shaped Hickling’s political consciousness.

Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, first published in 1952, is a masterly account of the pathologies of colonialism. Now, when “dem a bleach fi look like a browning”, as Nardo Ranks puts it, Fanon’s work is still so relevant. Fanon argued, “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” The madness is mutual.

The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire also inspired Hickling’s practice as a psychiatrist. Freire’s far-reaching manifesto, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, challenged the traditional way of teaching. He argued that it was based on the model of banking and fundamentally flawed. Students were seen as piggy banks into which knowledge was to be deposited. By contrast, Freire proposed that students should be recognised as co-creators of knowledge.


At Wolmer’s Boys’ School in the 1950s, Hickling was no piggy bank. He was a science student with a passion for the arts, so he joined the drama club. He was on track to create knowledge. In the 1960s, he worked with artists in the Jamaica Festival Movement and then became stage manager for the National Dance Theatre Company for 15 years. Hickling describes his career during this period as “straddling the fence of medicine and the creative arts”.

It was a visit to Cuba in the 1970s that made Hickling realise he did not need to straddle the fence. He was senior medical officer (SMO) at the Bellevue Hospital, where he was affectionately known by patients as ‘Eskimo’. Thanks to theatre practitioner and academic Honor Ford Smith for that gem! In Cuba, Hickling discovered that the Havana Psychiatric Hospital had developed an orchestra made up of patients. It was a revelation with revolutionary potential.

Like Marcus Garvey, who promoted cultural programmes at Edelweiss Park and Liberty Hall, Hickling recognised that the arts could become “a decolonising psychotherapeutic vehicle to help to transform the psyche of the Jamaican people, which had been fragmented and repressed by the ravages of slavery and colonialism”. Or, as Bob Marley put, “It takes a revolution to make a solution.”

Both patients and staff performed in the pageants staged by Hickling at the Bellevue Hospital. It was often quite difficult to distinguish between the two groups. The names of the plays were spectacular: Madnificent Irations; Visionated Penetrations; Madaptations and Irations Explosions. ‘Madnificent’ was a classic coinage, suggesting a kind of magnificence in madness. A grand refusal to accept the distorted definitions of identity imposed on individuals in a society that still devalues the black majority!


Not all of Hickling’s colleagues shared his passion for creative healing practices. In an essay on popular theatre as psychotherapy, Hickling noted, “ Most of the dissatisfied customers were the professional nurses, the nursing administrators and their allies. They perceived the changes as being unprofessional, non-medical, and, most importantly, they believed that the changes had wrenched the supreme authority of the institution from their hands into the hands of the underclass.”

As a politically engaged psychiatrist, Hickling understood the ‘culcha clash’ between those claiming supreme authority and those who are silenced, between those who assume they are sane and those who know better. Hickling co-wrote the play Krossroads – de Culcha Clash with Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis, actor, comedian, and drama lecturer. This is how Blakka remembers working with Hickling: “[H]is unpretentious, almost childlike, excitement with the collaborative creative process was always delightful and infectious. He had this amazing ability to simplify and demystify complex constructs while validating our local and ancestral traditions and ways of knowing.”

Hickling’s experiment with validating creativity at the Bellevue Hospital was short-lived. He reported, “By early 1982 the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government had replaced the administration of the Bellevue Hospital with nurses, doctors and lay administrators who completely dismantled the cultural therapy programme. This team bulldozed the Garden Theatre and rolled back the therapeutic community programme which had been instituted in the Bellevue Hospital in the mid-1970s. The destruction of the Garden Theatre and the eradication of the cultural therapy process was an act of administrative vandalism which defied logical explanation.”

Partisan politics has never been logical. Perhaps, in honour of the revolutionary healing work done by Hickling at the Bellevue Hospital, the present JLP Government could find a way to revive the cultural therapy programme he initiated. Madness takes a variety of forms. Destroying valuable cultural assets because of tribalism is pure lunacy. Making restitution is undeniable evidence of sanity.

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and