Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Farewell Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz passed away last weekend.  He was a prolific writer and critic of psychiatry.  He was vociferous in his view that so much of psychiatry was not scientific at all, and was rooted in social and political beliefs that when people behaved in ways that were unacceptable that they were "ill".  

He only saw illness in those who had physiological attributes of brain damage or disease, whether they be congenital, infection, stroke or accidental, not in conditions that were diagnosed with no signs of such damage, such as depression and schizophrenia.

His famous quote was. "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic"

He was highly critical of the use of drugs to "treat" perceived mental illness, looking to ECG and lobotomy as previous coarse and even inhumane exercises in curing behaviour.

He talked of how women who didn't act as were expected were deemed "hysterical", about attempts to cure homosexuality through surgery.   This and other attempts by psychiatry to diagnose and treat people reflected more about the context of social norms of the day as to what was "acceptable" behaviour, than to actual disease. He saw incarceration used more and more as a means of control than to protect people from those who would behave badly, as few people deemed to be mentally ill commit criminal acts upon others.  He rejected the defence of insanity as being an abrogation of personal responsibility, and believed the defence should not exist.  He wanted people accountable for their behaviour which it denied the rights of others, but he was a stalwart defender of the rights of others to live their lives as they saw fit, as long as they did not interfere with others doing the same.

He thought of psychiatry as a profession full of people bent on control, and indeed the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was in part inspired by Szasz's observations of the profession. 

He saw some diagnosis of mental illness as denying people responsibility for their own behaviour meaning they could have control of their lives taken over by professionals, only too keen to medicate, incarcerate, electrocute and operate.

Psychiatry loathed him.  He was a libertarian.  He was no fan of psychotropic substances or narcotics per se, but he loathed the war on drugs and loathed depictions of drug users as all "addicts", and believing that the state's treatment of drug users created far more harm than they ever did to themselves or others.

Reason has a good obituary about him, along with a series of links to articles, some supportive some scathing.

However, for me Szasz has the status of a man who confronted power, who confronted orthodoxy and did so despite being excoriated by them, for whilst he was not always right, he was not meek.

For who can pick up a copy of the "The Myth of Mental Illness" and not be rattled by the title, and not consider that the term itself has been used, so very much, to simply describe people who are having problems living.

1 comment:

Mark Hubbard said...

Interesting post ... I love being presented with new fields/people.

And good to see you back in the land of the living.