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Thomas Szasz, 1920–2012

The psychiatrist who attacked his profession

Dr. Thomas Szasz thought his profession was built on a lie. The controversial New York psychiatrist set out this charge in his best-selling 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness, in which he claimed that psychiatric illnesses were not diseases but merely “problems in living,” largely caused by a society that didn’t tolerate aberrant behavior. He argued against using drugs to treat psychiatric disorders, using insanity as a defense in court, and committing people to mental institutions. “I am probably the only psychiatrist in the world whose hands are clean,” he said in 1992. “I have never committed anyone. I have never given electric shock. I have never, ever given drugs to a mental patient.”

Szasz was born in Budapest. After his family immigrated to the U.S., in 1938, he studied medicine and joined the faculty at what is now Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. Szasz “published his critique at a particularly vulnerable moment for psychiatry,” said The New York Times. Critics were beginning to question some of the profession’s basic tenets—such as the ideas that women could be diagnosed as “hysterical” and that homosexuality was a mental illness. “But Szasz, in effect, threw the baby out with the bathwater,” said the Los Angeles Times, “arguing that the vast majority of psychiatric diagnoses were ill-conceived and scientifically baseless.”

His book became a bible for those who felt abused by the mental health system. But in 1969, he damaged his credibility by joining with the Church of Scientology to found the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group that pickets psychiatric meetings, said the Syracuse Post-Standard. He later distanced himself from the church, but his association with the commission led New York officials to block him from teaching at a state hospital.

Szasz faded into obscurity as evidence emerged about the chemical and genetic roots of some mental illnesses. But while many psychiatrists now dismiss his theories, some think Szasz helped change the profession for the better. “He made a major contribution to the issue of the misuse of psychiatry,’’ said E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher. “His message is important today.”

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