Thomas S. Szasz

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Thomas S. Szasz was Professor of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, came to United States in 1938, was naturalized in 1944, and received his M.D. from the University of Cincinnati in 1941. He died in 2012. Szasz coined the term “therapeutic state” to describe medicine and psychiatry as loci for social control.

Long regarded as a maverick within his field, he contended that mental illness (as opposed to organic disturbance) does not exist, but is rather a metaphor. Mental illness should rather be seen as “problems of living,” and psychiatry, he claimed, simply glosses over this difference. In line with this belief, he opposed use of the insanity plea in criminal cases, arguing that criminal law should be allowed to work unimpeded when a person has allegedly committed a crime. (He did, though, oppose capital punishment and prosecutions for victimless crimes.) Most controversially, he took the position that psychiatry is a repressive arm of the modern bureaucratic state and a tool for social control, because it can be used to imprison innocent people through “civil commitment” simply because their thought patterns are considered aberrant. He described “the mind” as a metaphor for self-conversation.

Szasz was an early and relentless critic of psychiatric classification of homosexuality and other consensual sexual behaviors as diseases. He was instrumental in causing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality as a diagnosis. He was harshly critical of psychiatry’s role in absolving Dan White of responsibility for the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.[1]

Szasz defended the right of adults to self-medicate and was a drug prohibition abolitionist. He contended that addiction is not a disease, but a stigmatizing label attached to people who choose to use euphoric drugs without permission of the state or its medical agents. He advocated a restoration of the traditional American right to use drugs which was terminated in the early 20th century.[2] Szasz also argued that suicide was a right with which neither the state nor physicians should have the power to interfere.[3]

Critical reception

Szasz views were overwhelmingly rejected by psychiatrists and other “mental health” specialists, who insisted that behaviors are legitimate diseases. They also resisted his criticism of the detention and forcible drugging of persons for non-criminal, peaceful behaviors. They largely rejected his beliefs that adults have the right to take drugs and commit suicide. Psychiatrist and neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said of Szasz, "Like the atheist who can't stop talking about God, Szasz cannot stop talking about psychiatry."

However, Karl Menninger, the most famous post-World War II American psychiatrist, co-founder of the Menninger Clinic, wrote late in his life to Szasz to apologize for not being more receptive to Szasz's criticisms of psychiatry. Menninger wrote, "I am holding your new book, INSANITY: THE IDEA AND ITS CONSEQUENCES, in my hands. I read part of it yesterday and I have also read reviews of it. I think I know what it says but I did enjoy hearing it said again. I think I understand better what has disturbed you these years and, in fact, - it disturbs me, too, now.”[4]

Robert Baker, a prominent skeptic who had been chairman of the psychology department at the University of Kentucky, said of Szasz, "As a staunch defender of liberty and a champion of the most vulnerable among us, Szasz deserves our deepest gratitude and respect. History will remember him kindly for his unwavering battle against the psychiatric error, pseudoscience, and medical tyranny that, in the name of the therapeutic state, continue to wreak irreparable and unforgivable harm.”[5] Psychologist Timothy Leary, best known as an advocate of hallucinogens, who was imprisoned 4 years for being a passenger in a car in which less than a half-ounce of marijuana was found, told Szasz that his signature book, The Myth of Mental Illness, was “the most important book in the history of psychiatry." Leary said the book was "great in so many ways — scholarship, clinical insight, political savvy, common sense, historical sweep, human concern — and most of all for its compassionate, shattering honesty.”[6] Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torey, who disagreed with Szasz’s central contentions, said that Szasz "made a major contribution to the issue of the misuse of psychiatry.”[7]

The view of Szasz among civil libertarians, left and right, has been generally supportive. For instance, in 1970 Studs Terkel stated that "Thomas Szasz is unique among psychiatrists in the United States in the depth of his commitments to human freedom and the precision with which he perceives that psychiatry, which should have become a major liberating force, has instead created highly effective forms of human bondage.”[8] Szasz clashed with the ACLU when the group brought suit for “the right to treatment” for people psychiatrically incarcerated, which Szasz said was effectively a mandate for psychiatrists to coercively drug those they detained.[9] Lilian Faderman, noted lesbian and LGBTQ historian, said that "Szasz's insights and critiques would prove invaluable to the homophile movement.”[10] In 2001, Nat Hentoff, for many years a leading left-of-center civil libertarian journalist, accepted The Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties.

Szasz was the target of much vituperation from the authoritarian right, both for his views on psychiatry and his defense of societal scapegoats. For instance, far-right author Rael Jean Isaac said upon his death, "Szasz is gone. His destructive legacy lives on.[11]

Resources and articles


  1. [1], Szasz, Thomas, How Dan White Got Away With Murder And How American Psychiatry Helped Him Do it, Inquiry, August 6 & 20, 1979
  2. [2] Thomas Szasz: The Right to Take Drugs, Harvard Law School, 1992, (
  3. [3] Szasz, Thomas S. M.D., Suicide As A Moral Issue The Freeman, 49: 41-42 (July), 1999.
  4. [4], Menninger, Karl, M.D., Reading Notes, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, Vol. 53, No. 4, July 1989, pp. 350-352.
  5. [5] Baker, Robert A., Psychiatry’s Gentleman Abolitionist, The Independent Review, v. VII, n. 3, Winter 2003, ISSN 1086-1653, Copyright © 2003, pp. 455–460.
  6. [6] Riggenbach, Jeff, Libertarian Psychology, Mises Daily Articles, July 1, 2011.
  7. [7] Dr. Thomas Szasz (obituary), The Telegraph, September, 18, 2012.
  8. [8] Dr. Thomas Szasz discusses his book "The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement”, Studs Terkel Radio Archive, The Chicago History Museum.
  9. [9] Szasz, Thomas S., The ACLU’s “Mental Illness” Cop-Out, Reason, January 1974.
  10. Faderman, Lillian, The Gay Revolution: The Story of a Struggle. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 282–3.
  11. [10] Isaac, Rael Jean, Thomas Szasz: A Life In Error, American Thinker, September 23, 2012.

External links

Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility