Szasz has made some of the most important and cutting criticisms of modern psychiatry but is now largely ignored by both academia and patients’ rights groups.
This is partly because the classical liberal philosophy that motivates many of his arguments has become less popular and partly because he’s been associated with Scientology – known for its wild-eyed anti-psychiatry.
It is also true to say that while making some pertinent and uncomfortable observations, he’s also made some rather less impressive and sometimes, downright insulting, accusations.
One of his most well-known arguments is that mental illness is a ‘myth’. This is widely misunderstood to mean that Szasz is arguing that there is no such thing as mental suffering or bizarre behaviour, or that it shouldn’t be treated, which is not the case.
Szasz would argue that these things are labelled as mental illnesses because of society’s willingness to medicalise, and often control, people who behave abnormally.
He argues that while these things occur, they are not diseases in the same sense that, say, AIDS, is an disease, because there is no clear biological marker for mental distress.
In a sense, modern psychiatry is cursed only to deal with disorders that do not have a discrete biological cause.
As soon as a clear biological cause is found, the disorder is often taken out of the hands of mainstream psychiatry and becomes the domain of neurology or neuropsychiatry, as has happened with neurosyphilis, epilepsy, Huntingdon’s disease and many others.
In a way then, Szasz is right, because psychiatry necessarily applies medical concepts only to fuzzy human phenomena.
As science advances, the concepts become less fuzzy, and so Szasz’s arguments might apply to a smaller and smaller number of disorders.
This would be the case, perhaps, if it weren’t for the fact that other unpleasant experiences and behaviours are increasingly included in psychiatry’s remit. Extreme shyness can now be diagnosed as social phobia, for example.
The New Atlantis article examines some of the motivations behind Szasz’s 40 year crusade, the hubris of 60s psychiatry, and why he is now less relevant in modern psychiatric practice when he was once centre stage.
Link to article ‘The Myth of Thomas Szasz’.