A comment on Szasz

One of the most interesting commentaries I’ve ever read on Thomas Szasz, the long-time critic of psychiatry who recently passed away, has been left as a comment in the obituary we recently published.

The comment is by ‘Aporeticist’ and he or she is clearly a fierce critic of modern psychiatry (to the point of indulging in sweeping generalisations at times) but the analysis of Szasz is remarkably insightful and cuts to the core of both his triumphs and failings.

Many of Szasz’s early critics have over the years quietly come around to some of his basic views. (Karl Menninger was one of his colleagues who acknowledged his change of heart.) The notion that the great majority of people with mental illness should never be hospitalized against their will (even when they are troublesome to those around them) has become common sense. It remains one of the great injustices of history that the psychiatric establishment continues to refuse to credit Szasz with being the first member of his profession who, in the mid 1960s, stated on record — against the unanimous opinion of his colleagues — the revolutionary contention that homosexuality was not a disease, and that it didn’t warrant “treatment” of any kind.

The classical liberal notion of “live and let live” resonates closely with the “first, do no harm” of the Hippocratic Oath that Thomas Szasz took as a young medical doctor. For better or worse, Szasz remained consistently faithful to these principles of negative freedom his whole life. Those, however, who believe that, as individuals and as a society, we have a moral obligation to (somehow) assist the mentally ill even when they don’t reach out for support, would regard Szasz’s characterization of psychiatric paternalism as “cruel compassion” as equally descriptive of his own apparent lack of concern for the welfare of those labelled mentally ill. Szasz tirelessly defended the autonomy of even the most severely disturbed mental patients (so long as they didn’t violate the law), yet seemed to care little whether they live or die if no one infringed on their sacred negative rights.

Recommended. Thanks Aporeticist.

Link to commentary on Szasz’s legacy by Aporeticist.

4 thoughts on “A comment on Szasz”

  1. ”of his own apparent lack of concern for the welfare of those labelled mentally ill”

    ”yet seemed to care little whether they live or die”

    Can you cite any references by Szasz to this pernicious slur?

  2. I appreciate your recommending my post, Dr. Bell. I’m surprised and flattered. Your point about the generalizations is well taken, too. (This is more obvious to me now, after several days, than it was when I was writing the comment.) I recorded my thoughts hastily and had no opportunity to revise them (and correct everything from grammar to some hyperbolic assertions).

    Szasz was a polarizing figure (as opposed to being universally reviled). He relished and deliberately cultivated his image as a heretic. Yet, the clichéd notion of an author whose work doesn’t allow for indifference, and instead provokes extremes of either enthusiasm or bitter hostility, fails to portray Szasz accurately. Apart from unconditional admiration by some libertarians and reflexive rejection by his profession (and many on the political left), Szasz’s writings leave most open-minded readers with a sense of radical ambivalence. So much of what one finds in his books strikes one as prima facie reasonable, and the rest as equally patently, and disquietingly, wrong. Perhaps it’s this peculiar, uneasy mixture of reactions that my post captures better than anything else.

    I enjoyed your thoughtful eulogy for Professor Szasz. You’ve managed to outline his major stances exceptionally clearly, in a concise, readable piece that could serve as an excellent primer (and refresher) on Szasz’s ideas. Your critique of his views is astute and fair, too, in my estimation (Szaszians will disagree, of course). One of the rebel psychiatrist’s most “infuriating” qualities was, as you would probably agree, his seeming inability to admit (or even experience?) doubt, and to change his mind about anything of significance. Obviously, such steadfastness and certainty of conviction don’t ipso facto prove that his arguments are unassailable.

  3. I think Szasz is interesting because of his basic idea that mental illness is a myth. Like some psychologist (I forgot his name) pointed out, there are extremely gullible people whose behavior is abnormal and debilitating and yet they are not considered ill or disordered. Same goes for sensation seekers who climb Everest and get killed or amputated.

    Not that I mind helping people but it shouldn’t be done under false medical pretences.

  4. The anonymous “Aporeticist”, is completely unworthy of having the last word on Szasz… especially with such tripe as this:

    “Szasz tirelessly defended the autonomy of even the most severely disturbed mental patients (so long as they didn’t violate the law), yet seemed to care little whether they live or die if no one infringed on their sacred negative rights. ”

    Szasz acknowledged the truth that nobody can be labeled a “patient” against their will without great injustice and coercion. Szasz cared more than you will ever know about whether we will live or die, for he cared about human beings going through a crisis, and our right not to be psychiatrized. There is nobody that cared more about the dignity of people forced into the mental patient role. And “we” certainly don’t need or want, the uninvited false “advocacy” of anonymous people like Aporeticist, and Aporeticist just proves Szasz’s lifelong point, that people who are willing to throw our rights under the bus in the process of pretending to be our “advocates”, are never going to improve the situation, ever.

    God bless Thomas Szasz. May he rest in peace. And may all individuals in jeopardy of being “helped” against their will by self-appointed “advocated” such as Aporeticist be protected somehow, from such molestation.

    And the mindhacks blog stands condemned for such pathetic attacks and apologia for the human rights abuses heaped upon those labeled “mentally ill”, daily.

    Your misplaced “advocacy” of coercive psychiatry, has been a sickening thing since day 1 of this blog.

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