Thomas S. Szasz

University of Toronto’s Anti-psychiatry Scholarship In The News

Were you to do a Google news search with anti-psychiatry as the key search term, until recently, you’d get what amounted to, predominately, a lot of anti-anti-psychiatry*  news turning up on your search page. This situation changed dramatically not that long ago when the University of Toronto launched a scholarship in anti-psychiatry. Now if you do the same search you will get a whole lot of anti-anti-psychiatry scholarship news on your search page. Thank you, Bonnie Burstow, for almost single-handedly putting anti-psychiatry back on the map. Now we know, anti-psychiatry is still out there even if the official news services haven’t caught up with it yet.

“Anti-psychiatry” gets official recognition at the U of Toronto

*A note on the terminology: Yes, I know anti-anti-psychiatry is a neologism, and I also know that it is a double negative, and, therefore, perhaps, technically speaking bad grammar, however, this goes to another issue, namely, what is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? In some instances, you know, the walls do have ears. Obviously, anti-anti-psychiatry is going to be, as some psychiatrists themselves have put it, and to distinguish anti-psychiatry from it’s adversaries, pro-psychiatry. Also, I’ve heard some people object to the term anti-psychiatry because they felt it was too negative. I don’t see it that way, especially given the amount of harm and destruction wrought by the profession of psychiatry. Psychiatry is negative, and given that it is negative, that makes anti-psychiatry a very positive matter indeed.

Anti-Psychiatry Is Dead. Long Live Anti-Psychiatry!

The anti-psychiatry movement has already been consigned to the history of psychiatry (Tantum 1991) despite the relatively recent first use of the term in the literature (Cooper 1967).

So goes the first paragraph in a piece, entitled What Was Anti-Psychiatry, on the website put up by Donald Duncan for a Critical Psychiatry Network.

The paragraph goes on.

A key understanding of “anti-psychiatry” is that mental illness is a myth (Szasz 1972).

Okay, I suppose, and the paragraph ends with…

The argument is that illness is a physical concept and therefore cannot be applied to psychological disorder without any physical pathology. As soon as it is accepted that mental illness can refer to psychological abnormality then the “anti-psychiatry” argument fails (Farrell 1979).

Remembering that Dr. Duncan is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, the question becomes, What the bleep is a psychological pathology?

I personally don’t see how harboring ideas about thought disease would not in itself be a pretty abstract matter. Organs get diseased, thoughts get jumbled, but however jumbled thoughts might get, there is not a disease present in the thinking of the person with the jumbled thoughts.

Many of the most prominent psychiatrists in the world disagree with Dr. Duncan about the demise of anti-psychiatry. According to them, disagreeing with the orthodoxy of bio-medical psychiatry IS anti-psychiatry. A heresy some of them might even accuse Dr. Duncan himself of indulging in.

The fact that ‘antipsychiatry’ has existed in one form or the other for some time, and indeed has sometimes been vehement enough to approach psychiatry as a demon to be exorcised, is noteworthy.

Such a statement, authored by Indian psychiatrist Nimesh G. Desai, was published under the title Anti-Psychiatry: Meeting the Challenge in the 2005 Oct-Dec issue of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

Even if the anti-psychiatry movement of  psychiatrists has elapsed, for some of us, its victims, in the psychiatric survivor movement, as long as there is a psychiatry, anti-psychiatry never died. We will fight on. We will fight on until psychiatry ceases to exist at which point anti-psychiatry, having served its purpose, itself will cease to exist, for there is no anti-psychiatry without psychiatry.

Of course, just as NAZIism was replaced by neo-NAZIism, keeping alive the anti-fascist vision, the chances of that happening anytime soon are not so great as we would like for them to be.

Anti-Psychiatry however is a phoenix-bird, and it is reborn from the ashes of its previous existences. So long as psychiatry continues to oppress and abuse, it will meet with resistance. Sure, anti-psychiatry was yesterday. Not only was it yesterday, but it is today, and given the abuse and arrogance of psychiatry, it will be tomorrow.

You can bank on it.

R. D. Laing, Thomas S. Szasz, and Mental Patients’ Liberation

Maverick psychiatrist Ronald David Laing once defined madness as follows: “Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” This speaks to the theoretical divide between R.D. Laing and his contemporary, fellow psychiatrist Thomas Stephen Szasz. His attitude towards Laing, from the beginning, was that of almost a visceral rejection, but on the grounds that Laing was, in his eyes, dissolute or lacking in moral fiber. This sort of symbolizes the distance between these two figures often falsely associated in the public mind.

Laing was a seminal thinker for the decade that came to be known as “the turbulent sixties”. Thoms Szasz was an emigre from a Hungary that fell under the soviet orbit following WWII, and thus reflected an older and more established world view, although similar claims could be made there, too. Szasz disputed the idea of mental illness, and approved, when it came to treatment, only of a therapist client sort of arrangement, an arrangement that jived with free trade. Laing wanted to throw off the divisions between patient and therapist in his unstructured and freer environment, the experimental therapeutic community, or residence.

What Szasz saw in Laing’s therapeutic setting, in his social experiment, was collectivism, of which, regardless of whether you are looking at communism or monasticism, he violently disapproved. Laing, on the other hand, recognized some of his clients “issues” as situational and social rather than imaginary and isolated. The theory is simple, you put some plants in one environment, and they are going to shrivel and die, however, if you transfer the same plants to another environment, they thrive. Animals, specifically the human animal, must be pretty much the same way.

There were other differences between the two, the stance of Szasz was moral. He was against forced treatment, and being against forced psychiatric treatment, he opposed the insanity defense as well. Laing, despite his social experiment, would never go so far as to oppose psychiatric force across the board. Power was something, for him, a psychiatrist might ruminate about, melodramatically, without relinquishing. He also was not beyond using the insanity defense, of which Szasz disapproved, in testimony before a court of law. Laing was operating under a mandate to live one’s life completely, and in so being, he would not be restricted by such moral constraints.

Another issue Szasz attacked Laing over was his use of psychiatric terminology, disease language, which he rejected. If “mental illness” was a myth, we shouldn’t speak of “problems in living”, as Szasz saw them, as “diseases”. Laing thought the disease theory, merely a theory, and not one that he necessarily subscribed to, but one he was not beyond utilizing in the interests of research and treatment. Basically it boils down to this. Laing served as an inspiration to those in favor of alternatives to forced and conventionally harmful treatments while Szasz served as an inspiration to those who would abolish forced treatment. Szasz’s approach to treatment focused more on accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions rather than evading that responsibility.

Thomas Szasz’s most famous book, in which he first expounded his views, The Myth of Mental Illness, was published in 1961, a year after he had published a landmark essay by the same title. R. D. Laing’s entrance into the published world began with The Divided Self, arguably his most famous book, in 1960. Kingley Hall, the first Laingian experiment, operated in London from 1965 – 1970. The mental patients’ liberation, or psychiatric survivor, movement began in 1969/1970 with the launch of the Lunatic Liberation Front in Portland, Oregon. The mental patients’ liberation movement, in so far as it existed, before becoming almost totally co-opted by federal financing, was against force and for “alternatives”, and thus, could be said to have been influenced and inspired by both figures.