The Lasting Impact of Dr. Thomas Szasz

This discussion came about as part of my job in retail in which I made the mistake of informing a customer of my scholastic prospects in Psychology. He shot back “Have you heard of Thomas Szasz?” Now, I am not that kind of psychologist. I would characterize myself as a Cognitive scientist with a focus on Embodied Cognition (however given the realm of knowledge, this is probably a stretch like a puppy calling himself a wolf). So, after being berated for what seemed an eternity (a quarter past an hour with this gentleman), I did some “research” on Professor Szasz.

Dr. Thomas Szasz, M.D. (April 15, 1920 – September 8, 2012) was a Psychiatrist and Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York. He is best known for his work “The Myth of Mental Illness” (1961) of which I have read the essay but not the book. In this work, Dr. Szasz lays the foundation for why mental illnesses are a facade of sorts to create control by the industry. While he does not necessarily oppose Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, he does lay a foundation in which these two are limited to patient-seeking rather than forced-admittance (that is, an individual should seek help and not be coerced into help). This seems like a lovely pretext, as many psychologists would adore the idea of patients who want to be there. However, these tend to be more social claims by Szasz to enforce his libertarian ideals in which persons have full control over their faculties (based on the philosophy of the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of property, and the pursuit of happiness). Thus we should not force people into counselling. It seems fair enough.

However, the greater threat Dr. Szasz poses is the idea that mental illnesses which do not have a clear biological bases (as defined by him) are not real. Akin to the claim if you can’t see it, smell it, or feel it, it must not exist. This idea has been criticized by authors much more skilled than myself, specifically, Kendell, Shorter, and Clarke.

While I do not fear the ideas extolled by Dr. Szasz, per se, it does frighten me that a gentleman of the general public would be privy and so enlightened by Dr. Szasz as to call Psychiatry “an institution of death.” Sure Dr. Szasz’s ideas are laughable but only to those of us considered within group as elite. But this leads to a larger problem which the world of evolutionary biology and physics are currently tackling, public perception.

That, it seems, is the goal for people like Dr. Szasz. It is not to revolutionize medicine or reinvent the wheel. Rather it is gain public favor and remove those seen as enemies. Dr. Szasz threw his weight behind the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). This Scientology front group is dedicated to eradicating Psychiatry and Psychology believing them to be destructive to an otherwise normal functioning person. This group and Scientology at large, have created a great amount of friction between Psychiatry and the public. It’s easy enough to dismiss a group which we find ridiculous for their views but they do hold some public sway. Often, critics find themselves on the legal ass-end of an ass whoopin’. While I do not necessarily want this message to be about the evils of Scientology (it is evil but that’s not my point), it is a force with which to be reckoned.

In response, Psychiatrists and Psychologists need to take seriously the threats posed by mass misinformation. What’s ironic about this is we have the tools and techniques to understand and tackle such issues, sociology and social psychology, specifically. Yet, we hide behind our walls and focus on the in-group. We seek to grow our knowledge, a noble pursuit indeed. Yet in my humble opinion, we should readily reveal the hypotheses and theories Psychology and Psychiatry engage i.e., the study of the mind and brain, and the way in which these are engaged. We do not use intuition or appeals to authority. We gain our knowledge systematically, scientifically, and responsibly. There is a haze surrounding Psychology as one of voodoo, mysticism, and pseudoscience. But nothing is further from the truth. We seek to falsify our knowledge just as any other science. We seek public verification just as any other science. We seek critical engagement just as any other science. This is because Psychology is a science.

So, this is my call to all Psychologists whether specializing in clinical or research. Do not allow this misinformation to spread. Your livelihood is based in testable, knowable, and verifiable science just as physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and all other sciences. There are no hard or soft sciences. There are no dry or wet sciences. These are divisive sub-classes meant to differentiate those of us who engage in different types of phenomena. We are scientists, period.

References

Clarke, L. (2007). “Sacred radical of psychiatry”. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing (Blackwell Publishing) 14 (5): 446–453. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2007.01103.x.

Schaler, J. A. (2014). Intro, and Szasz Materials. Szasz.com http://www.szasz.com/

Schaler, J. A., ed. (2005). “The Myth of Mental Illness”. Szasz under fire: The Psychiatric abolitionist faces his critics. chapter by R.E. Kendell (1st ed.). Illinois: Open Court. pp. 29–48. ISBN 0812695682.

Stewart, K. (2005). Scientology’s political presence on the rise. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from: http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/ci_2836269

Shorter, E. (2011). “Still tilting at windmills: Commentary on… The myth of mental illness”. The Psychiatrist 35 (5): 183–4. doi:10.1192/pb.bp.111.034108.

Szasz, T. S. (1960). The myth of mental illness. The American Psychologist, 15(2). Retrieved from: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/terrace/w1001/readings/szasz.pdf

Disclaimer

Reproduced with the permission of Jeffrey A. Schaler. All rights reserved.