Author: Thomas Szasz
Year of Publication: 1976
Page Count: 237
Having worked in the mental health field for several years prior to entering the ministry as well as having personal experience with members of my extended family who were diagnosed with mental illnesses, the subject of mental illness and psychiatry has long interested me. This interest (and a desire to explore the trends of the past century which have shaped our modern culture) recently led me to explore several of the works of American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.
Throughout his life and work in the field of psychiatry, Thomas Szasz was one of the discipline’s most controversial (and outspoken) critics. His best-known work, The Myth of Mental Illness, was published in 1961, and from its publication until his death in 2012, Szasz continued to do battle with the psychiatric establishment, with limited success. While Szasz may be accused of overstating his case, and thus alienating his opponents, many of the arguments that he made throughout his career have proven to be prescient, as the scope of mental illness has grown to such an extent that nearly all of us can be described as “mentally ill” in some way. In Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (first published in 1976 and updated in 1988, 237 pages), Szasz returns to many of the same themes that he addressed in his earlier works: the abuses of involuntary institutionalization of people diagnosed with mental illnesses, the use of psychiatry as a means of social control, the dangers of the “therapeutic state,” and the religious nature of psychiatry itself.
Szasz’s work is challenging and thought-provoking, and his argumentation is supremely logical. However, as a professed atheist, his most serious shortcoming is his failure to acknowledge the role that people’s spiritual lives play in dealing with the mental health challenges that they face. That being said, I can only echo one of Szasz’s reviewers, who put it very well when he described Szasz as “a valuable critic and agent provocateur,” someone who “has much to say which requires answering.”