Anti-Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz Dies at 92

Thomas Szasz
Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz died on 8 Sept 2012 at the age of 92. His death was reported by Jacob Sullum of today.

Szasz was best known for his vehement opposition to psychiatry as it is practiced in North America. He became a “star” of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s with the publication of his controversial and widely-discussed article, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” which appeared in American Psychologist in 1960. He was also the author of many books critical of psychiatry.

Szasz argued that the various conditions commonly treated by psychiatrists are not “illnesses,” properly speaking, at all, and should not fall within the purview of the medical profession. They are instead, in his words, “problems of living,” not qualitatively dissimilar to problems that many people have in managing their lives. Szasz was especially critical of the practice of compulsory commitment of the “mentally ill” to mental hospitals.

Szasz’s beliefs about psychiatry were connected to his general libertarian political outlook, which was borne, in part, of his experience with Soviet-style communism in his native Hungary.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

6 thoughts on “Anti-Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz Dies at 92

  1. Szasz was not an anti-psychiatrist — he was anti-coercion. Anti-psychiatrist was a term coined by David Cooper to describe Ronald D. Laing, but which got misapplied to Szasz afterwards. Szasz is perfectly fine with voluntary psychiatric relationships between doctors and patients. It’s the involuntary ones he’s against. Szasz does not blame drugs for people’s behavior, as, e.g., Peter Breggin does. Behavior is behavior and responsibility is responsibility, regardless of drugs.

    Szasz has been frequently misinterpreted, e.g., he does not say that conditions of suffering the culture calls “mental illness” do not exist, or that psychoactive drugs cannot or should not help people. He simply objects to any and all coercion, which too frequently psychiatry employs, and he expects precise physical lesions when talking about “mental illnesses” as real “diseases”. When such lesions are actually found in medicine, e.g., in syphilis, the symptoms cease being called “mental illnesses” and stop being handled by psychiatrists, which almost proves his point. He also rails against the illogic that since a drug helped someone, it necessarily proves a disease or chemical imbalance existed. No, it simply means a drug helped someone, just like caffeine does — is coffee drinking proof of caffeine deficiency disease? Prescribing psychiatric drugs is an art just as much as there’s any science involved in it. Why then should this be state-regulated, with monopoly power to prescribe psychoactive drugs being given only to state-licensed psychiatrists, who no doubt serve state interests as much if not more than patient interests? And since they serve state interests, does this not inevitably lead to coercion, such as the recent case of Brandon Raub being forcibly hospitalized by the state for his political Facebook postings ( )?

    Never in my life have I read or seen a more stronger advocate against coercion in general, than Thomas S. Szasz.

  2. Lee, it is true that Szasz did not adopt the term “anti-psychiatry” for himself, and it is true that he was different from Laing, Esterson, etc., but he was certainly against (and therefore anti-) psychiatry. It wasn’t only about compulsion (though that was the most popular part of his objection, and the one most closely linked to his broader libertarianism). He did not think that the constellations of behaviour and experience that psychiatrists call “mental illness” exist in the realm of medicine. That is to say, he was against there being a medical specialty that focuses on mental problems — viz., psychiatry. He denied the reality of the very diagnostic categories that psychiatrists use. He said they were mere metaphors. So he was not Laing, but he was anti-… psychiatry.

  3. See this:

    Yes, he opposed methods that did not convincingly demonstrate physical abnormalities and just supposed that abnormal behavior had a underlying cause as a distinct disease. In that respect he rejected the metaphysics of psychiatry just as the positivists rejected it. In no way does that make him anti-science, I argue.

    Today, while popular press reports that “diseases” such as schizophrenia have physical differences in the brain, there is not the controlled experiment to distinguish these correlated differences from the effects of the drugs or other factors. And everything shows that from a sociopolitical standpoint, the patient is in a minority position with respect to his/her doctors, family, the state, and society. If the political disadvantage were removed and the patient returned to liberty, there is evidence that they could function in a peaceful way. For those persons who still have disturbing thoughts or behavior (disturbing to themselves or others) even when their political disadvantage is removed, science can and will need to investigate their condition, but until the physical cause, if any, is found, then psychiatry will be no better than snake oil. And under no circumstances does it morally justify coercion against the subject.

  4. He has been saying he is not an antipsychiatrist for 40 years. Embarrassed for you that you used this headline.

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