Just in time for April Fool’s Day, we have the re-release of a book that sets mental health back fifty years. Too bad the author isn’t kidding. In an updated version of his 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz again is out to convince the world that there is no such thing as mental illness. Is he nuts or what?
Szasz’s argument would seem wholly based on semantics, if not for the fact that he dismisses some mental disorders, such as “so-called schizophrenia” (which, of course, is suffered by “so-called schizophrenics.”) Don’t worry he’s not out to alienate the mentally ill (who don’t actually exist); he manages to insult everyone working in the mental health field, families of the mentally ill, women, Christians, and Jews, as well as those suffering from mental illness.
Szasz is hung up on the terms “mental illness” and “mental disease.” He uses, as his guideline, a very narrow definition of illness, on which he then bases his attacks. He does not address genetic links to mental disorders, brain chemistry, or much of anything from the past 50 years. What he does discuss is hysteria. Szasz uses hysteria as an example of why there is no such thing as mental illness. He also uses lots of words. Over and over again. There is so much repetition, that we feel we’re being brainwashed. However, at times when an example would clarify a point he makes, it’s not offered.
We also feel that if we were to disagree with Szasz, he would say that’s because we already are brainwashed by the psychiatry establishment. Full of kind words for psychiatrists, he compares them to alchemists and astrologers; he likens the practice of psychiatry to rape and slave-holding. Szasz, obviously suffering from some childhood trauma, repeatedly goes after Freud, attacking his work and intellect. You won’t hear me defending Freud, but c’mon, enough’s enough!
There’s got to be a reason why none of my college psych courses included The Myth of Mental Illness on their reading lists. Szasz admits that his view was/is controversial, and that he was demonized by many people working in the mental health field (which can’t possibly exist — if there’s no such thing as mental illness, how can there be mental health?); he also stands by his original work. He peddles a conspiracy theory that charges government, the courts, doctors, lawyers, hospitals, and assorted health workers with exploiting the healthy.
Szasz seems to regard everyone working with mental disorders as scammers perpetrating a fraud against healthy people. I am not quite sure why a book that takes on hysteria as its major mental disorder is even relevant, unless it’s because Freud worked with hysteria, and this work definitely says, “Down with Freud.” For those who haven’t gotten past Freud-bashing, Szasz is THE MAN.
According to Szasz, hysteria is not an illness of the mind, it is a language. It is the means by which some people express their feelings. Is psychotic behavior a language? Do people who suffer from major mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (which isn’t even listed in the index) get something out of their demons?
I can’t remember ever reading a book that made me as angry as The Myth of Mental Illness. Think of people who live normal lives because they use medications that keep their brains on track. They weren’t ill? When dismissing these disorders, he overlooks advances such as technology that allows doctors to see what is happening inside a living person’s brain, that shows abnormal brain activity in persons exhibiting symptoms of mental disorders.
In describing the diagnosis of mental illness, Szasz states, “The alleged sufferer (especially the ‘psychotic’) considers himself neither sick nor disabled; but others insist that he is both. The role of mental patient is thus often imposed on persons against their will.” Here he totally dismisses people who recognize that they have an illness and proceed to get help. Szasz writes a lot about people who are “declared” insane and who are involuntarily treated. He claims that they are prisoners and are misused. Is that the majority of mentally ill people?
Since psychiatrists treat their patients with “talk therapy,” Szasz seems to think that proves mental disorders are actually communication problems. He also has a lot to say about malingerers, people who fake illnesses (and he complains that people who fake illnesses are believed to be suffering from an illness).
The Myth of Mental Illness is such a disservice to society, I am amazed it has supporters. That Szasz, despite the research, discoveries, and advances in this field in the past fifty years, adamantly defends and clings to every word in his original work is disturbing. The new preface and two bonus essays included in this printing make the same old arguments, and they are tiresome. His concern for civil liberties is admirable, but misplaced. No doubt Szasz is better educated and more experienced than I, but I wouldn’t let him treat a family member for a splinter, no less bipolar disorder or major depression.