Thomas Szasz, April 15, 1920 – September 8, 2012

September 11, 2012

Thomas Szasz, relentless “critic of coercive psychiatry, the ‘therapeutic state,’ and the war on drugs,” died at his home in Manlius, N.Y. over the weekend, according to Reason.com (to which Dr. Szasz was a contributing editor). Dr. Szasz’s “The Myth of Mental Illness,” according to Reason, “may be more relevant today than ever, as the field grows to encompass every sin and foible despite its shaky empirical foundation. Szasz argued tirelessly that psychiatric labels, as nothing more than names attached to sets of behavioral criteria, should not be used to strip people of their freedom or relieve them of their responsibility. Defenders of mental-health orthodoxy dismiss this critique more often than they address it, but even when they engage Szasz’s arguments they cannot refute his crucial point about the arbitrariness and subjectivity of psychiatric taxonomy.”

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Below is a note, written for Mad in America, by Dr. Szasz’s close friend Dr. Ron Liefer:

     I had the honor and privilege of having Tom Szasz as a teacher and mentor during my psychiatric training. I read The Myth of Mental Illness in manuscript and discussed it with him in seminars — and we have been close friends for fifty years. Sasz told me he saw through psychiatry when he was a young man. He was the most intelligent, well-read man I have ever known. But his opposition to coercive psychiatry was very personal. He was never a patient except during his training analysis. He lived free choice.
     This was brought home to me last week when I had lunch with him in Manlius. I had a stroke two years ago. During lunch, I had a grand mal seizure. When it was over I asked him if I had a seizure. He told me I did and asked me if I wanted to go to a hospital. The staff of the restaurant thought I was dying and called an ambulance. Tom asked me if I wanted to go to a hospital. I have been to hospitals many times during my illness and its complications, but no one had ever asked me if I wanted to go, they simply assisted me on to the ambulance stretcher without asking if I wanted to go, and giving me a choice. Tom gave me a choice. He not only wrote about and advocated free choice and criticized coercion. He lived by it.
     When the faculty tried to have him fired for writing The Myth, Ernest Becker and I defended him. He never stood up for us, for which we resented him for many years, until we took responsibility for our actions and realized that it was our choice to take that risk. So there are two examples of how Tom lived by free choice. It was personal for him because he grew up under the tyranny of communism in hungary and valued the liberty of the individual.

Of further interest:
Tributes.com
Dr. Thomas Szasz, Psychiatrist Who Led Movement Against His Field, Dies at 92 (NY Times)
Thomas Szasz, Manlius Pyschiatrist who Disputed Existence of Mental Illness, Dies at 92 (Syracuse Post-Standard)
Misunderstanding Thomas Szasz (Reason.com)

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Szasz, April 15, 1920 – September 8, 2012

  1. RIP, Thomas Szasz. I always appreciated his ability to find new ways to extend and express his ideas. A few years ago he wrote a piece in the BMJ suggesting that people with psychiatric histories should be able to take out restraining orders against the mental health system to protect themselves against forced treatment. You can imagine the outrage from some quarters, but I thought it was a great strategy!

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