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RIP, Thomas Szasz, Pioneering Psychiatry Critic

Thomas Szasz, M.D. died on September 8, 2012 at the ripe old age of 92. He was a pioneer in the field of making us rethink what we mean when we say someone is “mentally ill.” Is it really a purely physical disease, or is it part physical, part social construct?

And if it’s partly a social construct (and, to be honest, it is), it must be subjective. We’ve all simply agreed that this set of symptoms = mental illness. Keep in mind that his theories were based with our knowledge of mental illness in the 1950s and 1960s — a time when our understanding of mental illness was truly in its infancy. At that time, mental disorders truly were quite arbitrarily defined.

While many associate Szasz with the anti-psychiatry movement, that’s a label he never was comfortable with. It also over-simplifies his complex and nuanced views about mental illness as one of the most vocal critics of psychiatry.

5 Comments to
RIP, Thomas Szasz, Pioneering Psychiatry Critic

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  1. The mainstream must always have outliers who have the courage to question as we too are full of our biases. RIP.

  2. I knew him personally. When I was a kid back in the 60s and 70s my parents had a resort on Cape Cod. He used to come and stay for a week some years.My father was not crazy about him. He was a bit of a pain in the neck to deal with. But I remembered he did come on as friendly. I remembered that I helped carrying his stuff from his car to the cottage that he was staying in.

  3. Great man. Never confused the menu for the meal nor conformed to the cooks and the chefs.

  4. Thanks for your reflections, John. Tom Szasz was one of my teachers when I was a resident over 30 years ago and I knew him quite well. Although we disagreed on nearly everything related to psychiatry, he was always unfailingly kind and polite to me, as he was to my fellow residents.Ironically–and tellingly–Szasz never had any real contact, during his training or subsequently, with those diagnosed with the conditions Szasz regarded as “myths” or “metaphorical” illnesses (such as schizophrenia). He makes this clear in his own autobiographical statements. I believe this was a catastrophic loss for him that shaped his perspective evermore.For those who want to see an interesting recent debate, go the the “Cato Unbound” website for August 2012. See, especially, the comments of Prof. Amanda Pustilnik. Also, I have a piece in Psychiatric Times, titled, “Mental Illness is no Metaphor.” It’s rather technical and theoretical, but might be of interest to some readers.On this we can all agree: Thomas Szasz made us all think carefully and critically about our theories and assumptions, and framed the nature of the debate for over 50 years. He was truly a “gadfly” in the Socratic sense!Respectfully,Ronald Pies MD

  5. What a loss. I wonder how many will continue to have the courage to stand up for debate against the mainstream as big business takes over. I missed this article back when it came out. Not only is psychiatry in it’s beganing, we do not yet understand how the med’s that are more and more often are being offered as the only treatment affect the mind or the body as a whole.



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