Thomas Szasz, critic of psychiatry, dies

Did you see the obituary notice for Thomas Szasz, a 92-year-old psychiatrist who made it his life’s work to attack his own profession? If not, read the NYT’s article here. Szasz’ beef with psychiatry centered on two complaints: the diagnostic system treated individuals as having “things” rather than describing what they do (thus making it seem like people have diseases AND the coercive nature of treatments (forced treatment and meds for psychotic individuals.

What makes Szasz important to Christian counseling is that many biblical counselors and nouthetic counselors touted Szasz in their criticism of secular psychology and psychiatry. The Bobgans and Jay Adams used Szasz quotes to bolster their own criticisms.

How he was right AND wrong about diagnoses

Szasz was right in that DSM diagnoses tend to treat problems as discrete disease states when in fact they are descriptions of clusters of symptoms. More Venn diagram than discrete thing. Yet, Szasz and his ilk often used examples of diagnoses that he thought were not disease states. Well, some of these diagnoses have turned out more disease than not disease. Take ADHD for example. Many critics complained that there wasn’t anything that could be seen under a telescope…thus ADHD isn’t a real disease. Well, we can see significant differences in brain activity in the frontal lobes of those carrying the diagnosis. While we can’t yet point to a specific cellular structure or gene (and we likely never will since it is more complex than just biology), we are understanding the biological aspects of a number of mental health diagnoses.

Szasz was right that some portions of psychiatry treated those diagnosed as victims and ignored responsibility. Interestingly, as our understanding of genes and brain functioning have improved, the victim mentality has decreased. We are doing better in identifying responsibility even as we are more articulate about the effects of the Fall on the body.

We should thank critics like Szasz for pointing out serious flaws in the foundation of mental health philosophy and practice. And yet we should avoid the all/nothing approach that Szasz and his opponents took in criticizing or defending psychiatry. One common human reaction is to either (a) always look to be the critic, or (b) always look to explain away criticism. Both responses are normal but disastrous to helping others.


Filed under History of Psychology, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Thomas Szasz, critic of psychiatry, dies

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  2. “Well, we can see significant differences in brain activity in the frontal lobes of those carrying the diagnosis. ”

    This is totally untrue. There are no biological markers for ADHD, nor in fact for any ‘mental disease’. Szasz is still correct.

    • Dirk, it is only fair that you countered my undocumented statement quoted in your response with your own undocumented assertion. I suppose we could trade articles. A quick search of Psych Info reveals a number of evidences we could examine. Of course, these are going to be correlational (but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t actually seeing an effect). Both differences in volume and neural activity have been replicated. Jury is still out on what is happening and sample sizes must get larger. Biological markers usually refers to genetic markers and true, there isn’t a conclusive genetic marker yet known for ADHD. There are more promising studies re: Bipolar Dis. Of course, even when we find genetic markers (e.g., certain breast cancers), it does not mean the person will develop the cancer. There are, evidence of brain activity differences between nonADHD and ADHD children. Again, correlational and not based on thousands of Ns but enough to suggest something is happening. It might have been more accurate to say, “Some research data suggest differences in brain activity in portions of the frontal lobes with those meeting criteria for ADHD.”

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