Dr Thomas Szasz, who has died aged 92, was an indefatigable critic of conventional psychiatry, maintaining that it often offended against human dignity and infringed the rights of the individual.
Szasz argued that the concept of “mental illness” was little more than a metaphor without any pathological referent — that is, it was not based on evidence of disease or other organic malfunction. In an interview in 1969, he said: “When metaphor is mistaken for reality and is then used for social purposes, then we have the makings of myth. I hold that the concepts of mental health and mental illness are mythological concepts, used strategically to advance some social interests and to retard others, much as national and religious myths have been used in the past.” In one of his books, The Manufacture of Madness, he compared the 20th-century tendency to define aberrant behaviour as mental illness to the 17th-century practice of accusing nonconformists of witchcraft.
His seminal work, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct (1961), was reprinted many times — although Charles Krauthammer, the American columnist and a former practising psychiatrist, once declared: “Thomas Szasz is the kind of author no one reads but everyone knows about.”
According to Szasz, the “helping professions” had established a “Therapeutic State” which interpreted many, perhaps most, dysfunctional and illegal forms of behaviour as the result of factors outside of individual agency. He further argued that such a dominant perspective led to an assumption that individuals are not responsible for their actions; prison terms for felonious crimes, he suggested would be preferable, more condign and more just than time-limited detention in a mental institution.
In addition, he argued that some types of behaviour, for example the consumption of illegal drugs, are incorrectly labelled as “addictions”, implying that the individual has no control over his or her actions.
Interestingly, Szasz, as a lifelong libertarian, abjured making drug-taking illegal, even as he argued that such imbibing was stupid. Throughout his career he insisted that the right to ruin one’s own life was inviolable — even the right to commit suicide .
The author of nearly three dozen books and more than 1,000 articles, Szasz had a long and distinguished career as a Professor of Psychiatry at the SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York, where — at constant risk to his employment — he criticised what he saw as abuses of psychiatric practice which compromised citizens’ freedom. Even the psychiatrist E Fuller Torrey, however, with whom Szasz had frequently crossed swords, conceded at the time of Szasz’s death that, while he disagreed with Szaszian theory regarding a number of major issues, “he made a major contribution to the issue of the misuse of psychiatry”.
Szasz’s work was often misinterpreted and disparaged in the press, which linked him to the “antipsychiatry” movement — one which Szasz reviled and ridiculed (among his recent books was Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared). He reserved a special contempt for the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, a pillar of the anti-psychiatry movement who became a hero of the counterculture in the 1960s.
The son of a lawyer and landowner, Thomas Stephen Szasz was born on April 15 1920 in Budapest. As a schoolboy he played chess and bridge, and at the Royal Hungarian Training Institute he added tennis and ping-pong to his repertoire. Then, in 1938, his family moved to the United States, and he read Physics at the University of Cincinnati (where his uncle, Otto Szasz, taught mathematics) before continuing his studies at the university’s medical school.
Szasz was an intern at Boston City Hospital, and in 1945 took up a post at Cincinnati General Hospital. The next year he moved to Chicago, where he trained in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
For six years he worked at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and ran his own private practice before being called up in 1954 to serve with the Medical Corps of the United States Naval Reserve at Bethesda, Maryland. He then joined the SUNY Health Science Center.
He received many awards, including the Alfred R Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship and Writing from the Drug Policy Foundation; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute for Public Service; and the Rollo May Award from the American Psychological Association. He also gave his name to the Thomas S Szasz Award for Civil Liberties.
Thomas Szasz married, in 1951, Rosine Loshkajian. She died in 1971, and he is survived by their two daughters.
Dr Thomas Szasz, born April 15 1920, died September 8 2012