Szasz is usually associated with anti-psychiatry but he rejected the label and really had nothing in common with the likes of R.D Laing, David Cooper and the rest. You can see this in his work.
He had two main arguments. The first was that the concept of ‘mental illness’ was really just a metaphor, in the same way that saying someone’s movie preferences were ‘sick’.
Because neither can be defined objectively and are a subjective interpretation of conscious states or behaviour, he excluded them from what can acceptably be called an illness.
The second stemmed from a political position. Szasz strictly adhered to a libertarian or classical liberal view of freedom and believed the only legitimate restriction of freedom should be the result of crime.
He saw psychiatry as a structure fundamentally built around restricting the freedom of ‘patients’ – the only branch of medicine to do so – meaning he thought it lacked legitimacy in both its aims and justification.
Most critics of psychiatry suggest that it doesn’t sufficiently ‘help’ people with psychological problems. Szasz saw this as promoting the idea of privileged helpers and medically-dependent patients.
Suggestions that psychiatry should not use drugs, should reject diagnoses, or should recognise some experiences as normal were an anathema to Szasz. The problem, according to him, was not the practices but a paradigm that allowed any restriction of freedom.
He was one of the most important critics of psychiatry not because he said it was done badly, but because he said it was incompatible with human liberty. A powerful reminder to a powerful profession.
But so much of it relied on buying into Szasz’s politics – and this was his major failing.
Szasz saw individual liberty as a pure and unalienable right while most see it as as important principle that should be balanced with the good of the community.
Different people draw the line in different places while Szasz is clearly on the extreme end of the spectrum.
He became famous with his book The Myth of Mental Illness in the 1960s when the extremes of personal freedom were popular, but as time has moved on Szasz’s politics have seemed increasingly out-of-place.
His association with Scientology through the CCHR or the ‘Citizens Commission on Human Rights’ made him look increasingly suspect as the organization lost its 60s counter-culture associations and became an intimidating corporate nonsense shop.
Szasz will surely be missed, however. He was active and writing right until the end of his life – never giving up on his campaign for extreme liberty.
Link to death notice.