Thomas Szasz, RIP
The New York Times reports:
Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist whose 1961 book “The Myth of Mental Illness” questioned the legitimacy of his field and provided the intellectual grounding for generations of critics, patient advocates and antipsychiatry activists, making enemies of many fellow doctors, died Saturday at his home in Manlius, N.Y. He was 92....
Dr. Szasz (pronounced sahz) published his critique at a particularly vulnerable moment for psychiatry. With Freudian theorizing just beginning to fall out of favor, the field was trying to become more medically oriented and empirically based. Fresh from Freudian training himself, Dr. Szasz saw psychiatry’s medical foundation as shaky at best, and his book hammered away, placing the discipline “in the company of alchemy and astrology.”
The book became a sensation in mental health circles, as well as a bible for those who felt misused by the mental health system.
Dr. Szasz argued against coercive treatments, like involuntary confinement, and the use of psychiatric diagnoses in the courts, calling both practices unscientific and unethical. He was soon placed in the company of other prominent critics of psychiatry, including the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman and the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Edward Shorter, the author of “A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac” (1997), called Dr. Szasz “the biggest of the antipsychiatry intellectuals.”
I heard Dr. Szasz speak in the early '70s, and his book was a fundamental inspiration for the work of the Mississippi Mental Health Project in the 1970's to de-institutionalize Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield. The population of the hospital was more than 3,000 at that time. After years of negotiation and litigation, the population was halved. Other states went through similar changes.
Dr. Szasa's work was indirectly responsible for many, many people's release from unnecessary and probably unconstitutional psychiatric confinement across America and for the former inmates' personal liberty. He deserves our gratitude and appreciation for that.