Doctoral dissertations

“If you set your mind free, maybe you’ll understand”: The alternative use and experience of language in psychosis. 

PhD-student: Sarah De Wever

Summary: During the state of psychosis, individuals often exhibit significant alterations in their use of language, which can be observed through various phenomena such as phonological associations, the creation of neologisms, and a tendency to deviate from the main topic during conversations. These linguistic deviations are often perceived as peculiar and challenging to comprehend. Nonetheless, the application of phenomenological and Lacanian concepts may offer a framework that elucidates the notion that these verbal expressions are not entirely irrational or disordered. Consequently, the question arises as to whether any order can be discerned within this apparent disorganization of language. Drawing upon both phenomenological (e.g., hyperreflexivity (Sass, et al., 2018); loss of natural self-evidence (Blankenburg, 1971; 1988), etc.) and Lacanian (e.g., the notion of the Symbolic, including i.a. forclusion of the Name-of-the-Father) theoretical frameworks, the present dissertation aims to research the experience that accompanies these linguistic shifts, and the underlying structure of these phenomena

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stijn Vanheule

Identity formation in adolescence (ID-FORA): a youth-driven examination of identity content and distal social context in relation to mental health

PhD-student: Margaux Schoofs

Summary: In adolescence, the crucial task is answering the question of “Who am I?”, exploring social roles and relationships, interests, and personality characteristics. These elements comprise adolescents’ identity content, which is an essential part of identity formation, but remains largely overlooked in the literature. Moreover, examining how identity formation is influenced by the current fast-changing distal social context (e.g. societal norms and values, sociopolitical conditions) is of the utmost importance, as the lack of knowledge on this topic leads to an exclusive and disproportionate burden on the adolescents and their close context. Lastly, preliminary evidence indicates that both identity content and the relation to distal social context have an impact on mental health, but more in-depth research is needed. 

Using psychoanalytical concepts, such as Lacan’s notion of identity as escabeau (1978) and his elaboration on the capitalist discourse (1972), as well as more narrative identity approaches, such as McLean’s Master Narrative Framework (2015), we aim to better understand the function of identity content in adolescence, as well as how the distal social context relates to it. Triangulating theory and empiricism, we will conduct several in-depth, qualitative studies with adolescents in various schools in Flanders, concerning identity content, distal social context and mental health. Ultimately, we aim to arrive at a contextualized, youth-driven exploration of identity, providing a forum for adolescents’ experience.  

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Reitske Meganck

Co-supervisor: Prof. Dr. Melissa De Smet

'Words when they are Radically Missing': Exploring Narrativity in Recovery from Psychosis

PhD-student: Emma Brijs

Summary: Psychotic experiences are characterized by positive (e.g. hallucinations, delusions) and negative (e.g. anhedonia, alogia) symptoms. From a narrative perspective these symptoms can be conceptualized as a failure in building narrative accounts for perplexing experiences. This introduces the question how writing and reading fictional and non-fictional narratives might promote recovery from psychotic symptoms. As Lacan would say: how they can be a 'sinthome' (1975). My research aims at examining the utility and applicability of the narrativity concept to recovery from psychosis by conducting a series of in-depth co-creative qualitative studies concerning the subjective, first-person experience of individuals (formerly) struggling with psychotic experiences. We will study how diverse forms of narrating give shape to the process of recovery. As well as what complexities regarding temporality (e.g. unfinalizability by Bakhtin) emerge and how a surrounding atmosphere of recovery can be created that optimizes and cultivates the use of narrativity in recovery-oriented settings.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stijn Vanheule

The Formation of Subjectivity in Relation to Time: A Lacanian Perspective

PhD-Student: Li Zhuoxuan

Summary: Even with Freud’s constant claiming of a timeless unconscious and Lacan’s re-elaboration on the synchronicity of the signifier constellation, the question of temporality is never truly erased from the experience and the theory of psychoanalysis. For example, if the pleasure principle totally neglects time and reality, and is just for retrieving the lost object (a), why does the dialecticization of desire, even in dreams, always so rely on a temporalized reality? In this sense, the approximation of the timelessness of the Freudian unconscious can only reveal itself through temporalization. Based on this deadlock, this study will propose that the unconscious is not something timeless, not “thing-without-time”, but something non-temporal, “thing-cannot-be-measured-by-time”, yet this measuring itself is so time-related and inseparable.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stijn Vanheule

Paradoxical reality experience as a core feature of schizophrenia and psychotic disorders: a conceptual and qualitative empirical study

PhD-Student: Arthur Sollie

Summary: More than for any other pathology, the history of conceptualizing psychosis can be read as a history of failures to do so. Usually, such findings are seen as sobering proof that there is still a huge gap to be bridged between theories and actual psychosis. But one could also turn the question around: what if these failures already remind us of a problem that takes us right to the heart of psychosis itself, a problem that could, so to speak, "drive one mad"? This dissertation takes such a short-circuit as its working hypothesis. It does so in order to introduce a different point of view from which to evaluate both theory and psychosis.

The dissertation focuses specifically on psychoanalysis, phenomenological psychopathology, philosophy, and the conceptual works and testimonies of people with a history of psychosis.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Jasper Feyaerts

Psychosis and alienation  

PhD-student: Lotte Soffers

Summary: Sass (1992) points out that the history of modern psychiatry is practically synonymous with that of schizophrenia. The notion of alienation is often used to try to explain different elements within this psychopathology (e.g. Deleuze & Guattari, 2010; Fanon, 2018; Goffman, 2022; Lacan 1981; Laing, 1967; Oury, 1992; Pienkos & Sass, 2016). However, the relationship between the concept of alienation and psychosis is not unambiguous or clear. Many authors have different interpretations and seem to disagree on whether or not psychosis is a state of authenticity and consequently which state of mind is alienated from an essential core of subjectivity (Sass, 1992). This PhD therefore aims to further explore this relationship using the authors mentioned above. With this research, we eventually aim to understand, based on these different views, the widely divergent valuations of psychosis and the institutional implications at the therapeutic and organizational levels.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Jasper Feyaerts

A psychoanalytical reading of religious radicalism in the context of Islam. 

PhD-student: Amar El-Omari

Summary: During the last 15 years through my clinical work, I developed an interest in how identity, migration and religion influence each other. This resulted in multiple publications and trainings where I focused on the way mental suffering and the perception of one’s identity can be affected by a migration history. The last years my interest shifted to political Islam and radicalization, as I experienced through my former work in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek up close the effects of the terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. Inspired by Fethi Benslama’s concept le surmusulman, I asked myself the question what drove people to sacrifice their own lives in the name of God. In my PhD research I’m examining the interaction between religion (Islam) and identity from a psychoanalytic perspective by the use of a qualitative research in which I conduct interviews with practitioners and former Syrialeavers. Furthermore I will focus on Vranckx’ idea of radicalisation as an identity story and the question on what jihad means.

Supervisor: Prof. dr. Reitske Meganck.

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Vulnerability for depression: An empirical examination of risk factors and treatment response

PhD-student: Ufuoma Angelica Norman

Summary: Major depressive disorder, also known as depressive psychopathology, remains one of the most prevalent and disabling psychological conditions affecting people worldwide. It not only causes disability but also contributes significantly to the overall burden of disease globally. An important line of inquiry in depressive psychopathology research focuses on the active role of patient characteristics in contributing to their own distress. This line of inquiry specifically examines how personality traits associated with depression influence the expression of depressive symptoms.

The aim of this dissertation is to empirically investigate specific personality styles - anaclitic/dependent and introjective/self-critical styles, as well as sociotropy and autonomy, and relating risk factors which can increase vulnerability to major depressive disorder. This dissertation aims to highlight the importance of selecting appropriate measurement tools, recognize depressive personality styles as risk factors, and understand how they mediate the relationship between attachment and psychopathology. In addition, the influence of these personality styles on treatment response will be examined. By gaining a better understanding of these intricate relationships, we can improve treatment outcomes and develop personalized interventions for individuals with major depressive disorder.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Mattias Desmet

Hundred Years of Single Case Psychotherapy Research: A comprehensive review of psychotherapies with adult and child patients

PhD-Student: Anouchka Meliková

Summary: The aim of the present doctoral dissertation is to provide the first comprehensive review of psychotherapy single case research and to investigate the potential of single case studies to bridge the gap between psychotherapy research and practice. Firstly, the review study will give a broad overview of the number and the type of case studies that is published within the major therapeutic schools over the period of the last hundred years. Secondly, it will focus on the question as to what the influence is of time-period and of theoretical school on single case studies of psychotherapies with adult patients. This question will be addressed by means of qualitative techniques such as thematic analysis. Lastly, similar inquiry will be executed for single case studies on psychotherapy with children. 

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Mattias Desmet

In search of lost time: A dialogue between psychoanalysis and myth on the symbolic form and function

PhD-student: Carolin Baes

Summary: There is no true story about the past, as a character from P. Mercier’s “Perlmann’s Silence” explains. And yet, the past only exists by the grace of our capacity to tell stories. Stories we often tell willingly, but even more so reluctantly or unknowingly, through our dreams and symtoms. Over the past few years however, echoing an evolution in the teachings of the incontournable J. Lacan, more emphasis has been placed on the real of (inter) subjective functioning. But language or the symbolic in more general terms, still moves in mysterious ways. To further help elucidate the symbolic form as well as the role of the symbolic in (inter) subjective functioning, this dissertation will study the story in its most ultimate or fundamental form: the myth. From the outset psychoanalysis has been intimately connected with (Greek) mythology. Freud had his oedipuscomplex, of course, and Lacan repeatedly made use of mythological references to illustrate or even found some of his theoretical concepts. Moreover, psychoanalysis itself can be regarded as a (multi-form) myth that tries to capture the fundamentally elusive human experience. The dialogue between psychoanalysis and myth will be held at two levels. First on a more theoretical level: after a short introduction on the status of psychoanalysis and myth as symbolic models centered around and impossibility, I will explore what they can actually learn us about the symbolic form or the signifier. Secondly, the dialogue continues on a practical level, between psychoanalysis as practice and the practice of mythtelling. Guided by the works of Lévi-Strauss, who understands both analysis and myth as a search for lost time, this will lead us to examine the notions of forgetting and remembering, truth, and time. Running like a thread through this section, is the question about the possible mythical functioning of analysis and vice versa, the analytical functioning of the myth. At length, differences between both pratices will be discussed.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Reitske Meganck

A Conceptual Qualitative Study of Mania

PhD-student: Bart Rabaey

Summary: Although bipolar disorder is a common psychiatric diagnosis, there is a dearth of attention for the phenomenon of mania and for the diagnostic category of manic-depression or bipolar disorder within Lacanian psychoanalysis. In this dissertation, we undertake a conceptual study of mania in psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature and a qualitative investigation of the experience of mania in clinical practice. In phenomenological psychiatry, the manic-depressive experience is conceptualized as an existential phenomenon related to the experience of time, space, the body, and as a particular way of being-in-the-world. We aim to situate these divergent phenomenological analyses within a psychoanalytic structural framework that relates these phenomena to the notion of the subject as related to language, jouissance, and the Other. We will investigate psychoanalytic conceptualizations of mania based on the writings of Freud and Lacan with the goal of constructing a Lacanian understanding of mania. Our qualitative research will consist of an interview study of the experience of mania, focusing on the particular way this experience is disruptive to the experience of subjectivity and the particular narrative strategies people develop for recovering from this experience.

 Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stijn Vanheule

The symbolic polysemy of language. Psychosocial research and intervention through Emotional Textual Analysis (ETA).

PhD student: Fiorella Bucci

Summary: This doctoral thesis finds its roots in my more than 10-year experience in intervention-research as a consultant for organisations of different kinds (local governments and public institutions, corporations, non-profit organisations) and in different fields (mental health and disability care, youth employment, university education, urban development), as well as in my clinical work as a psychologist and psychoanalyst. My research deals with the psychological method for text and discourse analysis called Emotional Textual Analysis (ETA). ETA allows the psychologist to systematically explore how the different components of an organisation (or social group) emotionally symbolise their shared reality (or aspects of it), and to identify crisis factors and development resources in local relations, thereby supporting targeted interventions. My research aim is to achieving an accurate positioning of ETA within the wider scenario of methods for textual/discourse analysis which are in use at the present time in the field of psychology, by clarifying its novelty in terms of theoretical-epistemological framework, operational procedure, scientific and professional relevance.
1) theoretical-epistemological framework: ETA rests on a specific theory of emotion as a form of knowledge linked to the unconscious, which participates in the psychological construction of reality, according to precise rules that have been explained by psychoanalytic theory (in particular, Matte Blanco's semiotic model of the mind). In this sense, it can be interestingly compared to other methods sharing this root in psychoanalytic theory (e.g. Lacanian Discourse Analysis);
2) operational procedure: ETA could be termed a mixed-method research methodology, as it consists of a qualitative analysis of the symbolic meaning of words, based on a quantitative analysis of the words' co-occurrences within a text. In this sense, it can be interestingly compared to other (software-supported) lexical analysis methods, focusing on the emotional component of the text (often from fully different theoretical perspectives);
3) scientific and professional relevance: ETA was developed at the end of the Nineties as a research tool for psychological intervention in and with organisations. It stems from a theory of psychological technique (Carli's theory of the Analysis of the Demand) which assumes both the psychotherapeutic intervention and the organisational consulting to be founded on the analysis of the symbolic components of the client's demand. Such a methodological centrality afforded to the demand needs to be rethought today, as an added value and a limitation.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Stijn Vanheule


The patient doth complain too much?  Creativity and passivity in the neurotic’s lament​. 

PhD student: Goedele Hermans

Summary: Psychoanalysis has always understood the neurotic complainer as taking up an active role in his or her own misery. Phenomenological and existential readings of the complaint also underline the activity that goes hand in hand with passive suffering. The widespread medicalization of psychological disturbances however seems to lead to a fully passive reading of the complaint. This research project focuses on the concept of the complaint as it has been shaped by psychoanalytic practice and thought. This analysis hopes to contribute to a better understanding of both the deadly repetitive character and the lively joyous dimension of the complaint, a dimension for which the theoretical structure of present-day mental healthcare leaves but little room.​ 

Suprvisor: Prof. Dr. Jasper Feyaerts