Doctor Thomas Szasz: Antiquated Relic Or Continuing Influence


Not that long ago, Michael Fontaine, an Associate Professor in Classics at Cornell University, published a post on the Mad In America website, On Religious and Psychiatric Atheism: The Success of Epicurus, the Failure of Thomas Szasz. In this piece he compared the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus with the recently deceased libertarian psychiatrist, Thomas S. Szasz. The piece itself evolved out of a presentation he gave at the American Psychiatric Association convention in New York City. Far be it from me to suggest that any APA meeting would have a grand reception for the ideas of Szasz. The idea of burying him, and with him them, on the other hand, now that might go over pretty well indeed there.

I happen to disagree with what seems to be the major premise of the post Michael Fontaine submitted, and that is that Thomas Szasz was somehow a failure because there is no school of psychiatry operating today that could be said to be Szaszian. As Thomas Szasz himself put it, the type of psychiatry he advanced could not be practiced in the USA today because it would be such an exception to what passes for standard practice that litigation would not permit it. I think Thomas Szasz did have an enormous influence on one group of people, and so big an influence that a Szaszian school could be said to exist today.

Recently, just last year, there was held at Wagner College in New York City a symposium on R.D. Laing. On the internet The Society for Laingian Studies has a website. R. D. Laing, by no means an atheist, when it served him, equated madness with religious experience. R. D. Laing had a large following, and despite losing his license to practice medicine late in life, he continues to have such a following. Laing with Szasz have been associated with the term “anti-psychiatry”, a term both of them came to disavow. “Anti-psychiatry” was coined by a colleague of Laing’s David Cooper. David Cooper’s “anti-psychiatry”, at the time, was essentially meant to be a movement of people supporting approaches to psychiatry that weren’t heavily biologically biased.

During the 1970’s the mental patients liberation movement, a movement that came to be described as the psychiatric survivor movement, and later still the mad, or mad pride, movement was developing. The initial “anti-psychiatrists”, if by “anti-psychiatrists” you mean associates of R. D. Laing, stopped short of supporting the abolition of coercive psychiatric practices. Thomas Szasz, on the other hand, did see forced psychiatry for the social control mechanism that it was, and he sought to see it abolished. It is my contention that, as far as this movement was concerned, at least initially, Szasz had more of an influence than Laing.

There were two missions of this movement in the beginning. One was to provide for people victimized by psychiatry, in a way that the state did not, that is, to create alternatives to forced treatment for people at risk for it, and abused by it. The other was to see the end of coercive mental health treatment, or what in actual fact was state sanctioned abduction, torture, assault, imprisonment, and poisoning. This second aim has not vanished. People are still being oppressed, abused, tortured, and even killed by the psychiatric system in the name of “treating” diseases that can’t, in fact, be proven to exist…not in any physical sense anyway.

What would have called itself “anti-psychiatry” at one time, now describes itself as “critical psychiatry”. “Anti-psychiatry” has grown to take such a bad rap in the mental health professions, and in the corporate media, that any professional using the term could find him or herself at risk of a major career change. Of course, this is not the case with patients and ex-patients, and many of them have gone on to embrace the idea of an anti-psychiatry movement. Psychiatry itself as a profession grew out of the coercive mistreatment of certain individuals by medical specialists, and so, we have no problem implicating the entire profession in the mess it has had a major hand in making.

Over time, and as would be expected, alternatives to conventional psychiatry create their own conventions. Some of these alternatives lose sight of their origins, and begin to resemble the very thing they arose to counter. For this reason, the abolition of coercive psychiatry need not be contingent upon the development of alternatives, even if one supports such as options. The mental health movement, in which alternatives often play a substantial part, is all about mental illness industry expansion. The anti-psychiatry movement, on the other hand, is opposed to this mental illness industry expansion. Mental illness industry expansion means more and more people bearing psychiatric labels and, as such, coercively mistreated

I don’t think the religion of psycho-babble any more palatable than that of rational analysis in the long run. Nor do I think the Laing-Epicurean Szaszian-extinction comparison, and divide, really follows. As I see it Szasz has had a great deal of influence on a lot of people, and that influence is not going to fade into obscurity anytime soon. I would hope that out of this discussion more people discover the works of Dr. Szasz, and that they come to see, as many of us have, the need to abolish coercive mistreatment. As far as it goes, with a great many psychiatric survivors, Szasz still represents a major influence, one might say school of thought, and by no means does his legacy come close to approaching the dismal failure that some of his detractors might be hoping for.


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