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.