Thomas Szasz

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Dr. Thomas Stephen Szasz (born April_15, 1920 in Hungary) is Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York. Szasz is regarded as one of the most important critics of the moral and scientific foundations of psychiatry.

He is a prolific author and speaker, probably most well known for his books The Myth of Mental Illness and The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement which set out some of the arguments with which he is most associated. A provocative and pithy writer, Szasz's statements on the human condition are widely quoted.

His views follow from classical liberal roots which are based on the principles that each person has the right to bodily and mental self ownership and the right to be free from violence from others. Szasz is a principled libertarian who believes that the practice of medicine, use and sale of drugs, and sexual relations, should be private, contractual, and outside of state jurisdiction.

Szasz was 1969 together with Scientology the co-founder and the first director of Scientology's anti-psychiatry front group Citizens Commission on Human Rights. While Szasz declares that he has beside this common interest no ties with Scientology, Scientology mentiones him frequently.

Szasz's main arguments

Missing image
Photography by Jeffrey A. Schaler.

Szasz's main arguments can be summarised as follows:

  • The myth of mental illness: Mental illness is a metaphor. Illness is defined as an objectively demonstrable biological pathology that affects living creatures. Since mental illness describes undesirable behaviors, thoughts or feelings, there is no objective pathology to observe. The classification of certain behaviors as illnesses is a way of controlling undesirable people in society. By medicalising behavior we give the state and its psychiatric agents the power to involuntarily detain and drug individuals whose actions others find intolerable.
  • Separation of psychiatry and the state: If we accept that 'mental illness' is a euphemism for behaviours that are disapproved of, then the state has no right to force psychiatric 'treatment' on these individuals. Similarly, the state should not be able to interfere in mental health practices between consenting adults (for example, by legally controlling the supply of psychotropic drugs or psychiatric medication). The medicalization of government produces a "therapeutic state," which in an extreme case led to the Nazi genocide against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other "undesirables."
  • Presumption of competence: Just as legal systems work on the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, individuals accused of crimes should not be presumed incompetent simply because a doctor or psychiatrist labels them as such. Mental incompetence should be assessed like any other form of incompetence, i.e., by purely legal and judicial means with the right of representation and appeal by the accused.
  • Death Control: In an analogy to birth control, Szasz argues that individuals should be able to choose when to die without interference from medicine or the state, just as they are able to choose when to conceive without outside interference. He considers suicide to be among the most fundamental rights, but he opposes state-sanctioned euthanasia.
  • Abolition of the insanity defense: Szasz believes that testimony about the mental competence of a defendant should not be admissible in trials.
  • Abolition of involuntary mental hospitalization: No one should be deprived of liberty unless he is found guilty of a criminal offense. Depriving a person of liberty for what is said to be his own good is immoral. Just as a person suffering from terminal cancer may refuse treatment, so should a person be able to refuse psychiatric treatment.

Szasz is often said to be allied with the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He disavows the connection, though, since he is not opposed to the practice of psychiatry if it is non-coercive. He maintains that psychiatry should be a contractual service between consenting adults with no state involvement, and he favors the abolition of mental hospitals and the repudiation of force. According to Szasz, involuntary mental hospitalization is a crime against humanity which, if unopposed, will expand into "pharmacratic" dictatorship.

External links


nl:Thomas Szasz


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