"For What Possible Use Should You Keep Such A Treacherous And Savage Creature?"
Marcus Tullius Cicero(Roman Philosopher)
Thomas Szasz, R.I.P.
I was so saddened to hear that one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas Szasz, died last week. Reading Thomas Szasz’s work while a psychology student at American University challenged so much of my thinking and allowed me to question and freely reconsider what I had been learning in my more traditional psychology classes. I continue to be so grateful to the awesome professor I had then, Dr. Jeffrey Schaler, who exposed all of his students to Szasz’s wonderful body of work. I am not sure I can adequately capture in one blog post the influence nor the importance of Szasz’s ideas in shaping my own thinking.
Reading Szasz and early Camille Paglia made me not only aware of, but also in tune with classical liberal philosophy.
In his books, Szasz provokes deeper thinking about what we, as social beings, consider normal and acceptable behavior, as well as how much of a role the psychiatric community, or “therapeutic state” as Szasz called it, should have in defining and regulating our behavior. As a young undergraduate student interested in helping others through difficult crises of the mind or lifestyle, I simply was willing to accept what the professional psychiatric community said was a mental illness. I studied and strived to understand mental disorders based on the ever-changing definitions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, Szasz and Dr. Schaler’s lectures forced me to question what it was I really understood and if it was even possible for anyone to fully understand human behavior. The readings also sensitized me to what was often the medicalizing of cognitive and behavioral manifestations. Such medicalization often occurred without compelling scientific evidence, but was then used to justify overly authoritarian intrusions on people’s personal lives and freedom.
Szasz’s arguments against a therapeutic state are too deeply complex to try and give you bulleted highlights of them. However, if you are interested or passionate about mental health issues and civil liberties, I highly recommend starting with Szasz’s seminal book, The Myth of Mental Illness, and then making your way through his other provocative books. Especially for those who are in the helping professions - social workers, psychologists, public health advocates, I am looking at all of you - I strongly encourage you to allow yourself to be challenged and to seriously consider the unintentional harm that is often entangled in the actions of those in these professions.
Reason online posted a brief, but good profile of Szasz, his work, and its impact so many decades later. From that post:
Here was a man with the courage of his convictions. And here was a man with the literary skill to express those convictions clearly, no matter how hard some might find it to decipher his plainly stated arguments.
Szasz was certainly brave to speak up and against the very profession he worked in all of his life. But those of us who became students of his through coursework and his books are likely eternally grateful for the opportunity to learn his insights and to apply them in our own professional lives. I know my academic and career choices were forever changed after appreciating that there is an alternative way to empower and do therapeutic work with others.
For more on Thomas Szasz and his work, please visit this site in his honor.
Monday, September 17, 2012