My aim in this essay is to raise the question ‘Is there such a thing as mental illness?’ and to argue that there is not.
The quote above are the first words in a thesis by Dr. Thomas Szasz titled, “The Myth of Mental Illness.” You may be surprised when I tell you that Szasz was a psychiatrist. Yes, oddly enough, he was a psychiatrist who didn’t believe in mental illness. After his essay was published in 1961, Szasz went on to write 35 books about the subject up to 2012, when he died at the age of 92.
The purpose of this article is simply to introduce you to Dr. Szasz because, unfortunately, there are individuals who follow his beliefs. Szasz has long been the poster child for those who are skeptical – for those who don’t believe that mental illness exists. If you are diagnosed with a mental illness and find others don’t believe in your diagnosis, you may find much of their skepticism has its roots in the teachings of Dr. Szasz.
The writings of Dr. Szasz were suggested to me by a follower of Szasz’s philosophy. When I decided to follow the suggestion I swore to myself to keep an open mind. Well, I gave it my best shot. My original intent was to write an essay about the doctors’ thesis, but it was becoming too long. Instead, I have chosen to let the good doctor speak for himself with a little commentary from me.
Standing alone, I must admit that some of his arguments seem sound. For example,
The concept of illness, whether bodily or mental, implies deviation from some clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the structural and functional integrity of the human body.
What is the norm deviation from which is regarded as mental illness? This question cannot be easily answered.
Fine. I can understand that, but then he goes off the deep end and states,
What may be obvious may be also poorly understood. This I think is the case here. For it seems to me that – at least in our scientific theories of behavior – we have failed to accept the simple fact that human relations are inherently fraught with difficulties and that to make them even relatively harmonious requires much patience and hard work.
If you are diagnosed with mental illness, he said the real problem is your diagnosis, which is masking the fact that you and your psychiatrist aren’t working hard enough to help you cope with society.
We may recall in this connection that not so long ago it was devils and witches who were held responsible for men’s problems in social living. The belief in mental illness, as something other than man’s trouble in getting along with his fellow man, is the proper heir to the belief in demonology and and witchcraft. Mental illness exists or is “real” in exactly the same sense in which witches existed or were “real.”
I believe I could have saved myself some time by posting only the paragraph above. It alone. says a lot about the man.
Yet, if man fails to take increasing responsibility for his actions, individually as well as collectively, it seems unlikely that some higher power or being would assume this task and carry this burden for him. Moreover, this seems hardly the proper time in human history for obscuring the issue of man’s responsibility for his actions by hiding it behind the skirt of an all-explaining conception of mental illness.
Once again, it’s the patients fault for not taking responsibility for his own actions.
What is implied in the line of thought set forth here is something quite different. I do not intend to offer a new conception of “psychiatric illness” nor a new form of “therapy.” My aim is more modest and yet also more ambitious. It is to suggest that the phenomena now called mental illness be looked at afresh and more simple, that they be removed from the category of illness, and that they be regarded as the expression of man’s struggle with the problem of how he should live. The last mentioned problem is obviously a vast one, its enormity reflecting not only man’s inability to cope with his environment, but even more increasing self-reflectiveness.
He gets a bit repetitive, doesn’t he? I’ll admit I do have an inability to cope with my environment. Mania and depression can do that to you….as long as you believe they exist, I guess.
Here is the final paragraph of his thesis,
Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy we can fight, exorcise or dispel by “cure.” What we do have are problems in living – whether these be biologic, economic, political, or sociopsychological. In this essay I was concerned only with problems belonging in the last mentioned category, and within this group mainly with those pertaining to moral values. My argument was limited to the preposition that mental illness is a myth, whose function it is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflictions in human relations.
On Monday, I will continue with more commentary, rather than just provide quotes by Dr. Szasz. I will provide more information about Dr. Szasz and include commentary from some of his detractors. Until then I’d like to hear from you. What are your thoughts? Am I off base here? Does he provide valid arguments? How do his comments make you feel?