Mental Illness is a Myth part II

mental illness is a myth
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, 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.

13 comments on Mental Illness is a Myth part II

  1. I think the Dr. was stating something, even though it sounds like he went to the extreme, that many people are starting to think about. Psychopharmacology is not interested in treating the cause of our dis-ease, but in only masking it by treating the symptoms with drugs so that people can go back to being “normal,” i.e. getting back to putting their noses to the grindstone.
    If the goal of psychopharmacology is different than the individual’s goal, then the individual’s goal should be honored, shouldn’t it?

    1. Many pdoc’s laud him for the issues he championed, though they are always quick to acknowledge he was too extreme. I believe the medications are used because there’s still not enough evidence to determine how to effectively treat mental illness, so the only way to treat it is by hiding the symptons through medication. It makes me think back to when I was in the psych ward at Cedars Sinai Hospital. My doctor told me I “must continue to go to AA, however, all the 12 stepping in the world was not going to rid me of my depression and that I’ll probably be on meds for a long time, if not for my lifetime. I believe he was speaking from the heart and not as a man just trying to be a drug pusher.

  2. I love to read your thoughts!! I too would not say that the doctor was speaking from his heart. I think like most, that there paradigm is constricted by the construct that is created around them. Who creates the construct? What is their bias, their intention. That is why the 12 step program works. Their is no unspoken bias that creates the construct of what the intentions are.
    Why would you have to be, “on meds for a long time, if not my lifetime?” What is the basis of that opinion. What is the construct that framed his response?
    I say and have always said that my “mental illness,” is based on those “deep seated, sometimes quite forgotten, emotional conflicts that persist below the level of my conscious.” Page 79-80 of the 12 by 12. Good seeing you in the blog world again my friend. Gotta go finish a paper that is due tonight at 11:59 p.m.

    1. His reasoning for me being on meds forever was my family history and that I was a textbook case of depression. When he sat down and said, “What would you say if I told you that you may be on meds the rest of your life,” I responded that I assumed that was going to be the case and I Was, and am, fine with that.

  3. My first thought…this guy is a douche (pardon my French). There is already so much stigma against mental illness, do we really need someone stirring the pot some more?

    Meds for life in your previous comment — yep, me too. Something I have accepted, because, well, they make me feel better, keep me on an even keel. It’s not that I have some problem interacting with society, it’s that I have a chemical imbalance.

    Jeeesh…this guy pisses me off!

    1. Yeah, I’m not fond of this guy at all. People like to talk to me sometimes about how the meds are so hard on the body. I just tell them I could stop taking them and maybe live a longer life, but it wouldn’t be a life worth living.

      Better living through chemistry! 🙂

  4. I agree with some of the points he made about psychiatry. Unfortunately, mental illness is very real and psychopharmacology is practically our only treatment option. Not to mention, the only valid treatment option in the eyes of the public justice system. Yes, other methods work, but try to find somebody who offers them…

    That said, I’m disgusted by how drugs are pushed and forced onto us instead of working with us to build more stable unmedicated lives. There are some of us who would do fine without the medication if our lives weren’t so unpredictable. For example, I have Bipolar Disorder, and I’m only as stable as my financial situation. Yes, I know what some studies have said about unmedicated Bipolar Disorder. It should always be treated on a case by case basis instead of the default being antipsychotic medication.

    The meds seem to have very little positive effect on my own longterm stability. If anything, anti-psychotics make me extremely volatile, aggressive, and unpredictable. But, whenever I haven’t had to worry about paying rent I’ve been able to live a relatively normal life. When the bills start piling up, my brain kicks me into mania, it never fails.

    This is a very common thing for many of us. I’m sure many of you know. It’s also why I believe that more of us should be granted government assistance. The current system is set up to deny assistance to people by design. I have to say that almost everybody I know on disability is terrified of their case worker. They’re afraid to even talk to them.

    In my own anecdotal experience, the most stable people with this disorder that I know, are the people on disability, pensions, or other retirement funds. The most unstable, are those who are constantly struggling to find ways to survive.

    I should mention that I have yet to meet anybody who has done well on antipsychotic medication over the course of a few decades. These medications are barbaric chemical lobotomies that should only be used on a very select few.

    To those who claim that they work well for them. I’m glad they do. I have relatives who smoked their entire life and never got lung cancer. I have relatives who hitchhike across the country and never get mugged too.

    For the record, I’m on medication. I’m on Valproic Acid and Lamotrigine. I’ve been on Lithium and the more common atypical antipsychotics. There is a whole world of difference between the different classes of medication that many psychiatrists are not even willing to discuss with their patients before writing a prescription for them.

    The negative effects of anti-psychotic medications are well known. Yet, there are only a handful of medications for Bipolar Disorder that aren’t anti-psychotics, and most of the others are anticonvulsants, leaving practically only Lithium, an imperfect treatment which is thousands of years old.

    It’s clear that we live in the stone age of psychopharmacology. I for one, am glad that individuals are willing to question the psychiatric system. It’s far from perfect, if not entirely broken in most parts of the world.

    1. Welcome Courtney!

      Good points. The one I’d like to address is your comment:

      “the most stable people with this disorder that I know, are the people on disability, pensions, or other retirement funds. The most unstable, are those who are constantly struggling to find ways to survive.”

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I struggled and fought to get on disability and then to find a county medical clinic to take me in. I was on the streets for awhile and yet was told I was too high functioning to receive aid. The system is a mess.

      1. Thank you. Yeah, that was kind of a rant. Sorry, high energy day. But great article. Yes, the system in the U.S. and Canada is set up to deny. It’s a shame. I’ve gone my whole life jumping jobs, only being able to hold one for a bit at a time. The rest of the time, my father payed my rent, out of the kindness of his heart, because I couldn’t make ends meet for quite a few months of the year. When he died, there was no safety net for me anymore. I feel like I’m very lucky to have had him as a father. Without, I would probably not be alive today.

        I’m finally on disability now, pending medical review, and then I worry it will be back to worrying over where I’m going to sleep next month again.

        It’s hard to explain to others that I am functional today but not tomorrow. This week, but not next. One year, but not the next.

        They don’t get it.

        They only see me when I’m functional. They think that’s who I am all the time. Yet, they only see me a few times a year.

        I can barely tie my shoes.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: