Dr. Thomas Szasz (born 1920) is Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York.
He is a prolific author and speaker, probably most well known for his books The Myth of Mental Illness and The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement which set out some of the arguments with which he is most associated.
These stem from classical liberal roots (notably the work of philosopher John Stuart Mill) which are based on the principles that each person has the right to bodily and mental self ownership and the right to be free from violence from others.
Szasz's main arguments can be summarised as follows:
- The myth of mental illness: Mental illness is a metaphor. Illness is defined as an objectively demonstrable biological pathology that affects living creatures. Since mental illness describes undesirable behaviors, thoughts or feelings, there is no objective pathology to observe. The classification of certain behaviors as illnesses is a way of controlling undesirable people in society. By medicalising their behavior we give medicine and the state the remit to involuntarily detain and medicate such people to prevent them from behaving in ways society finds intolerable.
- Separation of psychiatry and the state: If we accept that 'mental illness' is a euphemism for behaviours that are disapproved of, then the state has no right to forcibly compel 'treatment' on these individuals by the use of psychiatry. Similarly, the state should not be able to interfere in mental health practices between consenting adults (for example, by legalling controlling the supply of psychotropic drugs or psychiatric medication).
- Presumption of competence: Just as legal systems work on the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty, individuals accused of crimes should not be presumed incompetent simply because a doctor or psychiatrist labels them as such. Mental incompetence should be assessed like any other form of incompetence i.e. by purely legal and judicial means with the right of representation and appeal by the 'accused'.
- Abolition of the insanity defense: Furthermore, the views of experts on the mental competence of an individual should not be admissible in court in deciding guilt for a criminal offence.
- Abolition of involuntary mental hospitalisation: No one should be deprived of liberty unless they are found guilty of a criminal offence after being tried by a jury of their peers under a fair legal system. Locking someone up purely for their own good is immoral. A person suffering from terminal cancer may refuse treatment and the same rights should be granted to those under mental stress.
Szasz' view of psychiatry as a tool of behavior control can be seen as related to the work of Chomsky, whose works Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent address thought and behavior control in democratic societies via propaganda.
See also: anti-psychiatry, Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing, American Association for the Abolition of Involuntary Mental Hospitalization