In 1961, Dr Thomas Szasz made a name for himself in the psychological field via an essay he wrote titled, “The Myth of Mental Illness.” During the course of his lifetime he wrote 35 more books on psychiatry and what he perceived as its abuses. On Saturday I posted quotes from “The Myth of Mental Illness,” which led to heated responses and healthy discussion. Having lived most of his adult life in controversy, he would not have been surprised.
This weekend I watched some interviews with Dr. Szasz on YouTube. The longest one I posted below. There was nothing vague about his beliefs. He made it very clear that he believed mental illness is a myth. In January, 2009 Harriet Hall posted on the website “Science-Based Medicine,” her interpretation of Szasz’s beliefs, which I feel mirror his comments in the videos. Those beliefs are:
He rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights.
Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests.
Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die.
Hall continues by stating,
It’s rejecting reality to think that mental illness doesn’t exist. Something is clearly wrong with an individual who is too depressed to get out of bed or eat, who is afraid to leave the house, or who believes he is Jesus Christ. These symptoms interfere with life and are usually distressing to the patient.
Patients who clearly have mental illness can be appropriately diagnosed and treated. Admittedly, a lot of not-so-clear cases end up with diagnoses and treatments they should not have. But that’s not a problem with psychiatry per se, but with the misapplication of psychiatry.
In 1969 Szasz tarnished his image in the psychiatric community by cofounding the non-profit Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). His co-founder? The Church of Scientology. Despite its name, the Commissions only focus is discrediting the psychiatric community. According to the CCHR website, they are “a nonprofit mental health watchdog, responsible for helping to enact more than 150 laws protecting individuals from abusive or coercive practices.” That doesn’t sound that radical, however, their Quick Facts page sings Szasz’s song- that psychiatric disorders are not medical diseases, there is no genetic proof of mental illnesses, and that all psychiatric medications are dangerous. In 2005 the CCHR opened the Psychiatry An Industry of Death Museum in Hollywood, California. Not a very subtle name. No mistaking where they stand on the issue.
Szasz later distanced himself from the Church of Scientology and insisted he was never a member. However, he continued his shared beliefs of the CCHR.
In an interview with Randall C. Wyatt of psychotherapy.net, Szasz was outspoken about what he perceived as the abuses of psychiatric medications.
Prescription drug laws are a footnote to drug prohibition. Prescription laws should be repealed. All drug laws should be repealed. Then, people could decide for themselves what helps them best to relieve their existential ails, assuming they want to do it with a drug: opium or marijuana or cigarettes or Haldol or Valium. After all, the only arbiter of what ails a person “mentally” and what makes him feel or function better, as he defines better, is the patient. We don’t have any laboratory tests for neuroses and psychoses.
Why do I spend time and energy discussing the beliefs of a man who died two years ago? Because his legacy lives on. The CCHR, with backing of the Church of Scientology, is a monetary power-house dispensing half-truths and outright lies. There are still psychiatrists who espouse Szasz’s views, and far too many in the general public who use his beliefs to validate their fears and disdain of psychiatry.
In a 1992 profile in The Syracuse Post-Standard, Szasz said,
I am probably the only psychiatrist in the world whose hands are clean,” Szasz told the newspaper. I have never committed anyone. I have never given electric shock. I have never, ever, given drugs to a mental patient.
His hands were clean? I don’t think so. The same year Szasz made that statement he was sued for malpractice by the widow of a man Szasz was treating. The man committed suicide six months after Szasz instructed him to stop taking lithium. The suit was settled two years later for an undisclosed sum. We’ll never know how many people were negatively affected by Szasz’s beliefs, but I would suspect that his hands were very dirty.