Psychologist Reviews The Work and Influence of Thomas Szasz


Austin Community College adjunct professor and psychologist John Breeding has published a personal, reflective essay in SAGE Open about the work and influence of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Breeding describes Szasz’ writings as having been for him “vital to withstand the relentless, mind-numbing propaganda in my field.”

Breeding explores Szasz’ thought in relation to themes such as mental illness as metaphor, psychiatry as an agent of social control, loss of privacy, the psychiatrization of children, iatrogenic trauma, and “Psychiatry’s Twin Pillars of Power: Involuntary Commitment and the Insanity Defense.”

“Practicing Szasz is a way to be more ethical in a profession that is unethical in many ways,” writes Breeding. “I use the term psychiatric oppression to refer to the ways that the mental health profession systematically mistreats those who are labeled mentally ill and acts as an agency of social control for mainstream society.”

(Full text) Practicing Szasz: A Psychologist Reports on Thomas Szasz’s Influence on His Work (SAGE Open, October 7, 2014. DOI: 10.1177/2158244014551715)


    • Oh yeah B.

      For a profession that has the whole community involuntarily committed by proxy and with no responsibility for the behaviour of practitioners they certainly are the Twin Pillars.

      I do think that the work of Thomas Szasz will be appropriated by the profession eventually, in much the same way that Marx was appropriated by capitalists. By this I mean that if Marx hadn’t explained that if the situation with the exploitation of labour continued the way it was, then the working class would not reproduce fast enough to provide anyone to exploit.

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      • In 1960 Thomas Szasz wrote the essay, in 1961 he wrote the book. I’m talking about The Myth of Mental Illness. In 2001 the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), now the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, came up with their Top Ten Myths About Mental Illness. I feel certain that if it had not been for the classic essay and book by Thomas Szasz, there would have been no Top Ten Myths. This isn’t appropriation, it’s reaction. These researchers can’t attack Szasz without complementing him. Psychiatry has always felt very awkward about its critics, and Szasz is no exception. We’ve recently had the posts on MIA by Phillip Hickey about how psychiatry is now trying to call any criticism of the biological mainline mantra “stigma”. Szasz was very clear on the matter, abolish forced treatment, abolish the insanity defense, and make the separation of powers apply to politics and medicine the way they applies to politics and religion. Psychiatry, that arm of government for dealing with thought-crime, can ignore him, psychiatry can’t appropriate him. Bio-psychiatry can’t anyway. Why do you think Thomas Szasz went after R. D. Laing & Co. in Quackery Squared? He went after them because Laing never went so far as to say, clearly and in no uncertain terms, that forced psychiatry should be abolished. Laing had his “alternatives”, but this reluctance to carry through, and to match word with deed, in this instance, made Laing and many of his followers hypocrites. Szasz might say fraud, but I’m saying hypocrisy. I’m saying, if you read Szasz in depth, he can’t be appropriated, because he was so very clear about where he stood on these matters. Some people would have lumped Szasz with Laing and others, but there you have Szasz clearing that one up. All you have to do is turn to the actual words of Thomas S. Szasz. When the psychiatric survivor movement came along, I think it was thanks to Szasz that many people in our movement knew where they stood vis a vis forced treatment. When we forget this abolitionist strain that we owe to a few thinkers like Szasz, we as a movement become co-opted. Frankly, I’m not for forgetting, I’m for remembering Szasz and his contribution.

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        • Hey Frank,

          My knowledge of the position of Szasz and particularly Laing is limited. I know that reading The Myth of Mental Illness had a major effect on me and changed my major in college.

          I guess what I see at present is the expansion of psychiatry in much the same way that capitalism expanded during the Industrial Revolution, unrestrained. At some point Psychiatry will possibly be forced to recognise that if they keep doing the damage they are to the community, there will be no one left for them to treat. I mean they are, like the capitalists, dragging children into their clutches to exploit younger and younger.

          I haven’t looked at the data seriously but what will be the consequences when these children grow up? Will they be so damaged that they will not be capable of even reproducing? Will there be an argument for forced sterilization to cover the ‘mistakes’ of psychiatry? Not capable of caring for children because of the damage to their brains from drugs?

          It’s a bleak vision but quite possibly on the cards. So I guess I’m suggesting an appropriation in the sense of realising that they need to back off a little because if they don’t it will cost them economically. Because like capital, psychiatry has no morals and only values profit and expansion of power.

          I know I haven’t communicated what I’m trying to say here very well. But I’d be worried if I heard parts of Szasz’ ideas coming from the mouth of a psychiatrist. Like a capitalist advocating for a shorter working week.

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          • Great article by John Breeding though, huh? Perhaps, given a psychologist like John Breeding, there could actually be said to be a Szaszian school of psychoanalysis. Anyway, Thomas Szasz was certainly no slouch when it came to the influence he had on a great many people, speaking as one of those people.

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  1. As was Dr. Breeding, I was influenced and guided by Szasz, first being exposed to his work in graduate school in the early 70’s. I then worked in the NY state mental health system where Szasz first was oppressed, castigated, and threatened with termination for his correct ideas that differed from the main stream authoritarians, psychologists and psychiatrists. I saw, first hand, how the state operation demands adherence to medical authoritarianism, if you want to work there. Only in one of many facilities where I was employed, was I fortunate enough to have a compassionate psychoanalyst who also appreciated Szasz, as a supervisor for 8 years. Career experience led me to believe that most administrators and supervisors in the massive public “mental health” system are immersed in a morass of ignorance and what I would refer to as sychophanticy where only main stream thinking and the pleasing of supervisors bears any meaning. The “patients” are tools to be manipulated, controlled, and chemically destroyed if they don’t meet the criteria of the mainstream. Attempt any creative and proven approach to healing and one is immediately castigated and shunned.

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  2. There are many people who fraudulently call Thomas Szasz a Scientologist. This is an absolute lie. Szasz was an atheist. In an interview aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Szasz clearly states:

    “Well I got affiliated with an organisation long after I was established as a critic of psychiatry, called Citizens Commission for Human Rights, because they were then the only organisation and they still are the only organisation who had money and had some access to lawyers and were active in trying to free mental patients who were incarcerated in mental hospitals with whom there was nothing wrong, who had committed no crimes, who wanted to get out of the hospital. And that to me was a very worthwhile cause; it’s still a very worthwhile cause. I no more believe in their religion or their beliefs than I believe in the beliefs of any other religion. I am an atheist, I don’t believe in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Buddhism and I don’t believe in Scientology. I have nothing to do with Scientology.”

    Link to the interview:

    If you have been introduced to Thomas Szasz by way of his over-the-top videos created by CCHR, a Scientology backed group, please ignore them, and actually read his published works.

    The mental health workers that I was exposed to belonged to an organisation based on and funded by Christian groups (there and many such hospitals, schools and other institutes like that in my country. Hell, I studied in a Christian school, but that has nothing to do with my beliefs). Should I dismiss them as Christian groups? No. Their financial backing and what they do are two independent things. Similarly with Szasz.

    When you read Szasz’s works (and not CCHR videos, or RationalWiki entires, or rubbish written by random people, psychiatrists and “skeptics” online that ascribe nonsense and falsities like “mind-brain duality” to Szasz), likely you will agree with certain things, and disagree with others, i.e. you may be ambivalent. However, there is good to be absorbed from his works.

    I am publishing a few short passages from his books (like The Theology of Medicine etc.):

    1.) Inexorably, efforts to combat disease or stave off death conflict with the need to maintain dignity. The currently popular phrase death with dignity is therefore quite misleading: it is not just that people want to die with dignity, but rather that they want to live with it. After all, dying is a part of life, not of death. It is precisely because many people live without dignity that they also die without it. Determined and dignified persons, whether soldiers or surgeons, have always wanted to die with their boots on. Military men have traditionally preferred death on the battlefield or even suicide to surrender and loss of face; medical men prefer a sudden death from a myocardial infarct to a lingering demise from generalized carcinomatosis.

    These examples illustrate my contention that there is often an irreconcilable antagonism between preserving and promoting dignity and preserving and promoting health.

    2.) We can influence others in two radically different ways-with the sword or the pen, the stick or the carrot. Coercion is the threat or use of force to compel the other’s submission. If it is legally authorized, we call it “law enforcement”; if it is not, we call it “crime.” Shunning coercion,we can employ verbal, sexual, financial, and other enticements to secure the other’s cooperation. We call these modes of influence by a variety of names, such as advertising, persuasion, psychotherapy, treatment, brainwashing, seduction, payment for services, and so forth.

    We assume that people influence others to improve their own lives.The self-interest of the person who coerces is manifest: He compels the other to do his bidding. The self-interest of the person who eschews coercion is more subtle: Albeit the merchant’s business is to satisfy his customers’ needs, his basic motivation, as Adam Smith acknowledged, is still self-interest.

    Nevertheless, people often claim that they are coercing the other to satisfy his needs. Parents, priests, politicians, and psychiatrists typically assume this paternalistic posture vis-a-vis their beneficiaries. As the term implies, the prototype of avowedly altruistic domination-coercion is the relationship between parent and young child. Acknowledging that parents must sometimes use force to control and protect their children, and that the use of such force is therefore morally justified, does not compel us to believe that parents act this way solely in the best interest of their children. In the first place, they might be satisfying their own needs (as well). Or the interests of parent and child may be so intertwined that the distinction is irrelevant. Indeed, ideally the child’s dependence on his parents, and the parents’ attachment to him, mesh so well that their interests largely coincide. If the child suffers, the parents suffer by proxy. However, if the child misbehaves, he may enjoy his rebellion, whereas the parents are likely to be angered and embarrassed by it. Thus, what appears to be the parents’ altruistic behavior must, in part, be based on self-interest.

    3.) Since the seventeenth century, it has been mainly the scientist, and especially the so-called medical scientist or physician, who has claimed to owe his allegiance, not to his profession or nation or religion, but to all of mankind. But if I am right in insisting that such a claim is always and of necessity a sham- that mankind is so large and heterogeneous a group, consisting of members with inherently contradicting values and interests, that it is meaningless to claim allegiance to it or to its interests- then it behooves us as independent thinkers to ask ourselves, “Whose agent is the expert?”

    4.) John Donaldson and James Davis, the authors of a chapter titled “Evaluating the Suicidal Adolescent,” present the case history of a “17-year-old adolescent male,” whose problem they describe thus: “Current Complaints. Recent suicidal gestures.” This cannot be true: No one calls his own suicide attempts “gestures.” The authors’ final diagnoses of their patient are “Adjustment reaction with depressed mood. 2) Personality disorder 3) Homosexuality.” The book I cite was copyrighted in 1980, seven years after the APA abolished the diagnosis of homosexuality. Nine years after the authors’ treatment ended, the patient committed suicide. I am not faulting the authors for the suicide. I am faulting them for using this case as support for psychiatric coercion as a rational method of suicide prevention.

    Anyone familiar with the mental health industry knows that suicide is now the single most effective tool for promoting, justifying, and selling psychiatry. The threat of suicide, fear of suicide, gesture of committing suicide, attribution of wanting to commit suicide, promise of preventing suicide, claim of having successfully prevented suicide, each of these fears, threats, and promises stokes the furnaces of the madhouse industry, especially of its children’s division.

    5.) Everywhere, children, and even many adults, take it for granted not only that there is a god but that he can understand their prayers because he speaks their language. Likewise, children assume that their parents are good, and if their experiences are unbearably inconsistent with that image, they prefer to believe that they themselves are bad rather than that their parents are. The belief that doctors are their patients’ agents-serving their patients’ interests and needs above all others–seems to me to be of a piece with mankind’s basic religious and familial myths. Nor are its roots particularly mysterious: when a person is young, old, or sick, he is handicapped compared with those who are mature and healthy; in the struggle for survival, he will thus inevitably come to depend on his fellows who are relatively unhandicapped.

    Such a relationship of dependency is implicit in all situations where clients and experts interact. Because in the case of illness the client fears for his health and for his life, it is especially dramatic and troublesome in medicine. In general, the more dependent a person is on another, the greater will be his need to aggrandize his helper, and the more he aggrandizes his helper, the more dependent he will be on him. The result is that the weak person easily becomes doubly endangered: first, by his weakness and, second, by his dependence on a protector who may choose to harm him. These are the brutal but basic facts of human relationships of which we must never lose sight in considering the ethical problems of biology, medicine, and the healing professions. As helplessness engenders belief in the goodness of the helper, and as utter helplessness engenders belief in his unlimited goodness, those thrust into the roles of helpers whether as deities or doctors, as priests or politicians have been only too willing to assent to these characterizations of themselves.

    This imagery of total virtue and impartial goodness serves not only to mitigate the helplessness of the weak, but also to obscure the conflicts of loyalty to which the protector is subject. Hence, the perennial appeal of the selfless, disinterested helper professing to be the impartial servant of mankind’s needs and interests.

    Do these sound like the ravings of a crank? Give me a break.

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