The Myth of Thomas Szasz


As young person growing-up under the ideological constraints of 1980’s-1990’s Britain, I became reactively interested in a bygone age. The 1960’s ostensibly offered me a model of society in which freedom had seemed, not purely conceptual, but achievable. Thus, I became immersed in the residue of counter-cultural products of a decade, at odds with the ideological emphases of the period of my own youth. During this time of my life, I first became acquainted with the notion of anti-psychiatry, the work of R.D. Laing and David Cooper awakening me to consciousness. It was during this time that I first read, The Myth of Mental Illness by Thomas Szasz. Having recently heard of Szasz’s death, I promptly revisited his iconic work.

WHAT DO WE DO, WHEN OUR IDOLS BECOME OUR ENEMIES?

“Modern psychiatry dehumanises man by denying…the existence, or even the possibility, of personal responsibility of man as a moral agent.” The Myth of Mental Illness, Szazs (1961)

When I was 20 years old, I longed for the day when humankind would be free from the forces of oppression. When I was 20 years old, Szasz’s text told me that man was inherently free. Why, I asked myself, if we were free, was self-expression punishable by The State?
Szasz distinguishes between physical and mental ill health. For him, mental health issues derive from the mind’s interpretation of the problems of life. Thus, mental illness becomes a metaphor for our inability to cope with the demands of reality. Grounded in, “The real,” distress becomes our escape mechanism.
Today, I understand why Szazs’s ideas attracted me. Man is a moral agent and the focus for change; we are greater than The State. Psychiatry has been utilised as a tool to undermine the powerfulness of our true nature and assaults our basic human rights. The psychiatric patient is not beyond reason, she is subject to the coercion of The State.

However, my more mature mind has prompted me to reappraise his arguments. Now, when I read his work, I am aware of the reactionary behind his libertarian guise. For separating physical and mental health, not only sets up binary opposition but, supports right wing notions about personal responsibility; if those experiencing psychological distress are not ill, they are as accountable for their actions and behaviour as all others. The logical conclusion to this argument is that people affected by mental health issues should not be entitled to State benefits or even treated differently by the judicial system.
As a liberal, these ideas are repugnant to me. I believe it somewhat ironic that one time arguments of the idealistic left have been appropriated by the repressive Conservative government of today.
Reading Szasz again, has reminded me of the importance of his contribution to moral philosophy and my own naivety at the age of 20.

Advertisements

A Dual Self


Having been raised in the Christian church, I am burdened by the weight of a conscience, guilt trickling through my veins like blood. Thus, I have lived my life in pursuit of goodness and unachievable absolutes which contradict the fleshy and impure thoughts of my furtive psyche. This sense of duality has defined my adult life and persists in my vacillating moral and political principles. I think I know, then I change my mind.
As a student I found the perfect outlet for my belief in Marxism; I joined student political societies. However, although I was hungry for social change, I never felt fully connected to my comrades and lacked their single-minded drive. For over twenty years, I have remained haunted by a casual remark made by someone, whom I still respect; she said that I was “too subjective.” At the time, I was mildly offended, perceiving myself as weak. In time, however, I realised that I could not be an automaton, dedicating my life to the pursuit of the greater good. I was an individual and if I wanted to improve the world I had to be kinder to myself. Political activism preceded my breakdown of self. Henceforth, I have struggled to re-build my identity. I am, perhaps, more fragile, these days, but I am, also, more knowing.

Stream of a Conscience


There is a fear which haunts all writers and that fear is loss of inspiration. We all experience dry periods in which words, ideas and the construction of plots elude us; our waking hours punctuated by non-productivity and night time by the sweat of non-fulfilment. Over the last few days, I been firing blanks of concepts, refusing to build into a seed of a form embracing a composition, deserving to be heard. I am tired. However, I need to write. Please forgive my stream of consciousness style.
Two days ago I returned from my holiday in Malta. When abroad, I would like to have experienced a touch of the culture of the country I have visited. Unfortunately, on this holiday I learned more about British culture than that of Malta. Initially, piqued by the attitude and demeanour of the non-British staff at hotel where we stayed, as the week evolved I realised that they had been stereotyping us based on their experience of other British holiday makers. I felt embarrassed by the behaviour of my fellow Brits and doubly embarrassed by my own embarrassment. These were people, similar in social and economic background to many of the people who had populated by younger life. I felt not comradeship for these, my working class brothers and sisters but, frustration. Uncomfortable in my own skin, I had behaved exactly as the hotel staff had towards the other British holiday makers, I had stereotyped them. In this instance, as the kind of working class people who would stand not with defiant fists clenched at the boundaries of a picket line but, would push aside honourable strikers and lay with management. When I heard voices raised, from the “English style,” pub next to the hotel, in a chorus of, “There’ll always be an England,” I knew not whether to smile or frown. Stereotyping is reductive and objectionable. We all do it.

Would you get into Bed with a Tory?


It was announced today that, Margaret Thatcher, Lady of the iron heart, had vacated her mortal coil and moved to pastures new. Whether these pastures caress her soul in eternal fire or cleanse her spirit as the purification of redemption, will remain unknown to those left behind; left behind to gather the remains of a country undermined by the politics of selfishness and free market ideology. A country, whose downfall I would trace back to the 1980’s, when she resided as Prime Minister and the devil incarnate. I would like to believe, however, in the existence of divine justice; what goes around, comes around. She who shits on beauty will drown in her own detritus. Thatcher shat on the values I hold dear, her legacy remains in the fragmented Britain of 2013.
Her death could not have been more useful to The State than if the Conservative Party, themselves, had planned it. For, it diverted the country from the much more pressing political issue of today, the introduction of a new welfare benefit to replace Disability Living Allowance. I mentioned benefit cuts in a previous post and their effect upon sick and disabled people; significantly, this was my least viewed post. Disability is not cool or sexy…and neither are politics. Politics, however, determine the nature of social reality, which we all re-produce-even those, like myself, who have denied its existence. Thus, I believe, that we should activate our ability to choose and opt to build a better, more egalitarian State, led by the will of the people and not a political party, which represents bad faith.

Cardinal Sins?


Call me a “liberal softy,” for I have been burdened by experiencing a touch of sadness about the plight of Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Replacing my initial outrage by the remarks he made against equal marriage and gay people, is a sense of embarrassment that in 2013, people should be so appalled by his admissions of homosexual practice(?).
I cannot overstate the following: Although I am not a Catholic, I fully support the rights of all people to follow their chosen religious/spiritual paths. However, whist it was in accordance with the doctrine of the Catholic church, for the Cardinal to resign from his post, I believe that all people, regardless of religion, should practice greater empathy towards those who, for multitudinous reasons, feel unable to open their closet doors and proclaim their sexuality to a world, which can be more judgemental than accepting of “difference.”
I am particularly concerned about the welfare of lesbians and gay men whose desire for social acceptance, often leads to self-destructive urges and lifestyles. Suicide rates among gay men in the U.K. are particularly high and homophobia is a factor in substance addiction and the psychological distress of many in the LGBT community.
Whilst social equality seems to all rightful thinking cynics a utopian dream, accepting those whose lifestyles do not correspond with our own is essential, if we are to build a more egalitarian world, based on the model of liberal democracy.