Mad, or bad? Attacking the Concept of Madness
2013-04-15 0:00

By Holly Case | AEON



In 1961, a young psychiatrist initiated a one-man insurgency against his own profession. ‘Psychiatry is conventionally defined as a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases,’ he wrote. ‘I submit that this definition, which is still widely accepted, places psychiatry in the company of alchemy and astrology and commits it to the category of pseudoscience. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as “mental illness”.’

Fifty years after his book The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct first ventured this uncompromising view, its author Thomas Szasz visited Cornell University in upstate New York. He was there to speak to an audience of students, many of them coerced or bribed by their professors to attend, plus a few local lawyers and psychiatrists. His subject was ‘The Insanity Defence: The Case for Abolition’. The talk started late because a man in a wheelchair was being positioned near the front of the lecture hall. Szasz greeted him enthusiastically; the audience would later learn that he was Ronald Leifer, a psychiatrist who had been denied tenure at the Upstate Medical Center at Syracuse in 1966 for defending Szasz and his iconoclastic ideas against practically the whole of the psychiatric profession.

When it finally started, the lecture was heavily anecdotal and lasted barely half an hour. The 91-year-old psychiatrist spoke in a quiet voice and with a thick Hungarian accent. Students shifted in their seats. Then came the Q&A. Although the subject was the insanity defence, the audience was more interested in Szasz’s assertion that there was no such thing as mental illness. ‘What about schizophrenia?’ ‘How can you be a practising psychiatrist if you don’t believe in mental illness?’

One student asked him: ‘Are you trying to say we all have different brains?’ The lecturer seemed unsteady on his feet. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘we do.’ Another student put it to him that we might be determined by our neurological make-up. ‘I think you and I have different brains,’ Szasz replied. That got a laugh from the audience. It was clear that being the only one in the room with a brain like his was part of his persona; being contrarian was his way of being right. Throughout his career, even friendly co-optation irked him. When scholars started associating him with the anti-psychiatry movement, he wrote a book entitled Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared (2009).

The psychiatrist inherited from the Inquisition the task of quarantining society’s dangerous elements


Szasz liked to present himself as a dissident. And yet, when he began dynamiting the foundations of psychiatry in the 1960s, rebellion was in vogue, and he seemed very much a man of his time. Along with so many other radicals of the decade of dissent who got half of what they wished for, he has largely been forgotten, his troubling declarations defused by decades over which he worked as an academic and a practising psychiatrist.

After the talk at Cornell, he confided over a stiff drink that he generally did not give talks anymore. ‘I’m too old,’ he told me. ‘Plus, not many people know I’m still alive.’ Indeed, not long after our conversation, Szasz died, last fall. But did his ideas die with him? On the contrary, it might be that the world has only recently come around to his way of thinking.

Near Szasz’s school in Budapest there stood a statue of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician who found posthumous fame as a 19th-century martyr of science. To Szasz, the sickly and discontented young son of a Jewish businessman, Semmelweis became something of a hero. The late doctor’s claim to fame had been the discovery that it was possible to practically eliminate the often-fatal ‘childbed fever’ common among new mothers in hospitals if doctors simply washed their hands before assisting with childbirth — especially if they had just been performing autopsies. When his findings became more widely known in the 1840s, he expected a revolution in hospital hygiene. It didn’t come, and Semmelweis grew increasingly outspoken and hostile towards doctors who refused to acknowledge his discovery. Vitriolic academic exchanges ensued, and he was eventually lured to a mental hospital where his opponents had arranged for his incarceration. He was beaten severely and put in a straitjacket. He died within two weeks. Echoing Voltaire, Szasz recalled the doctor’s tragic life in an autobiographical sketch in 2004:
It taught me, at an early age, the lesson that it can be dangerous to be wrong, but, to be right, when society regards the majority’s falsehood as truth, could be fatal. This principle is especially true with respect to false truths that form an important part of an entire society’s belief system. In the past, such basic false truths were religious in nature. In the modern world, they are medical and political in nature.


[...]

Read the full article at: aeonmagazine.com




Related Articles


Latest News from our Front Page

Not Again: More US AID, Missiles Shipped to al Qaeda, al Nusra and ISIS in Syria, Iraq
2015-03-06 4:28
Two weeks ago, 21WIRE reported on how ISIS and other terrorists militants operating in Syria and Iraq are receiving regular weapons and ‘supply drops’ – forming a ‘rat line’ which seems to be playing a crucial role in keeping this highly profitable conflict going on both sides. This week, it’s been reported that Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters have been brandishing US-supplied ...
Swedish parliament removes Baroque artist's bare breasted painting for offending feminists and Muslims
2015-03-06 3:28
A nude painting named Juno, which was painted by baroque artist G E Schröder and has hung in the dining room of the Swedish Parliament for 30 years has been taken down for fear of offending the sensitivities of feminists and Muslim visitors, Swedish newspaper, The Local reported on Thursday. Explaining the ban on the baroque breasts, a source from the ...
White US children will be minorities by 2020 after immigrant 'baby boom', Census reveals
2015-03-05 19:50
This is the result of an ongoing trend of declining birth among white Americans and a baby boom among immigrant groups, as well as a surge in immigration. By the year 2020, 50.2percent of all children in the US are expected to be non-white, according to the Census. By 2044, whites will be outnumbered by minorities. The Census study, released ...
New Jersey Shopkeeper Hangs 'White History Month' Sign In Window
2015-03-05 18:08
A deli owner in Flemington, New Jersey, has angered many of his neighbors by posting a sign on his window that reads, "Celebrate Your White Heritage in March White History Month." Jim Boggess, who is the owner of Jimbo's Deli, says he put up the sign to remind everyone that they should be proud of their race and culture. "No matter what ...
The Viking ”Maine Penny” Mystery
2015-03-05 3:41
In 1957, during his second year of digging at the Goddard site; a large prehistoric Indian trade village in Penobscot Bay on the central Maine coast, local resident and amateur archaeologist Guy Mellgren found a small silver coin. The coin is later identified by experts as a Norse silver penny dating to the reign of Olaf Kyrre, king of Norway ...
More News »