Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 June 2014
In 1960, Thomas Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness, arguing that mental illness was a harmful myth without a demonstrated basis in biological pathology and with the potential to damage current conceptions of human responsibility. Szasz's arguments have provoked considerable controversy over the past five decades. This paper marks the 50th anniversary of The Myth of Mental Illness by providing commentaries on its contemporary relevance from the perspectives of a range of stakeholders, including a consultant psychiatrist, psychiatric patient, professor of philosophy and mental health, a specialist registrar in psychiatry, and a lecturer in psychiatry. This paper also includes responses by Professor Thomas Szasz.
Szasz's arguments contain echoes of positivism, Cartesian dualism, and Enlightenment philosophy, and point to a genuine complexity at the heart of contemporary psychiatric taxonomy: how is ‘mental illness’ to be defined? And by whom? The basis of Szasz's doubts about the similarities between mental and physical illnesses remain apparent today, but it remains equally apparent that a failure to describe a biological basis for mental illness does not mean there is none (eg. consider the position of epilepsy, prior to the electroencephalogram). Psychiatry would probably be different today if The Myth of Mental Illness had not been written, but possibly not in the ways that Szasz might imagine: does the relentless incarceration of individuals with ‘mental illness’ in the world's prisons represent the logical culmination of Szaszian thought?
In response, Professor Szasz emphasises his views that “mental illness” differs fundamentally from physical illness, and that the principal habits the term ‘mental illness’ involves are stigmatisation, deprivation of liberty (civil commitment) and deprivation of the right to trial for alleged criminal conduct (the insanity defence). He links the incarceration of the mentally ill with the policy of de-institutionalisation (which he opposes) and states that, in his view, the only limitation his work imposes on human activities are limitations on practices which are conventionally and conveniently labelled ‘psychiatric abuses’.
Clearly, there remains a diversity of views about the merits of Szasz's arguments, but there is little diminution in his ability to provoke an argument.