Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist whose 1961 book “The Myth of Mental Illness” questioned the legitimacy of his field and provided the intellectual grounding for generations of critics, patient advocates and antipsychiatry activists, making enemies of many fellow doctors, died Saturday at his home in Manlius, N.Y. He was 92.I can't begin to describe in words how important all three of these individuals are and how dramatically they influenced my thinking on the topic of mental illness and medicalized deviance since grad school. But of the three, Szasz's "Myth of Mental Illness" did more to change my thinking than any other single book I read.
Dr. Szasz (pronounced sahz) published his critique at a particularly vulnerable moment for psychiatry. With Freudian theorizing just beginning to fall out of favor, the field was trying to become more medically oriented and empirically based. Fresh from Freudian training himself, Dr. Szasz saw psychiatry’s medical foundation as shaky at best, and his book hammered away, placing the discipline “in the company of alchemy and astrology.”The book became a sensation in mental health circles, as well as a bible for those who felt misused by the mental health system.Dr. Szasz argued against coercive treatments, like involuntary confinement, and the use of psychiatric diagnoses in the courts, calling both practices unscientific and unethical. He was soon placed in the company of other prominent critics of psychiatry, including the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman and the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Edward Shorter, the author of “A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac” (1997), called Dr. Szasz “the biggest of the antipsychiatry intellectuals.”“Together,” he added, “they tried their hardest to keep people away from psychiatric treatment on the grounds that if patients did not have actual brain disease, their only real difficulties were ‘problems in living.’ ”
To those skeptical of modern psychiatry, however, Dr. Szasz was a foundational figure.“We did not agree on everything, like his view that there is no such thing as mental illness,” said Vera Hassner Sharav, president and founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient advocacy group, and a longtime critic of the field. “But his message that people get designated as ill, labeled and then shafted out of society and preyed on by an industry dominated by drugs — that’s where he was very valuable.”
To those of us who have spent years lambasting the medicalization of deviance, the over-reliance on psychotropic medications, and the manufacturing of madness by the psychiatric-industrial complex (of which Big Pharma is a major player), we have lost a giant and spiritual forefather.
RIP Dr. Szasz.