In memoriam Thomas Szasz, M.D.

I note with sadness the death last week of Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012), a prominent critic of psychiatry.  Szasz was the first great defender of the notion that “mental illness” is a political and moral construction, a way of delegitimizing human difference and dissent by treating it as a “sickness” which it is the job of physicians, applying “science” to “cure.”  (By tortureherotic therapeutic measures and imprisonmentconfinement in a “hospital” if necessary.)  I’m not kidding; at the time Dr. Szasz wrote what was likely his most influential book, The Myth of Mental Illness (1960), even being gay or lesbian was enough to get you diagnosed as “mentally ill.”  I shudder to think what mid-century psychiatry would have made of someone like me.

As such, Dr. Szasz was a great defender of human liberty. Lowry Heussler, in a reminiscence published at The Reality Based Community, comments

Professor Szasz hated tyranny so much that it caused him to turn against his own expertise. He rejected the idea that a man marching to a different drummer was failing to keep step because of some hearing disability that need to be corrected. If the patient wanted to keep thinking that he was the King of Siam, Szasz would try to help him live as happy as possible a life– measured against the patient’s values, not Szasz’s– while holding onto that belief. If the patient found that the belief was making him unhappy and wanted to change it, Szasz would help the patient with that task.

To those among us who are different from others in ways that disturb said others, we owe to the influence of psychiatry the stigmatizing claim that we are “sick” and the half-advice/half-demand that “you need help.” For us, though Dr. Szasz’s life may have ended, his light has not gone out.

Requiescant in pace.

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