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Thomas Szasz; psychiatrist challenged validity of field

THOMAS SZASZSusan Kahn/Upstate Medical Univ.

NEW YORK — Dr. Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist whose 1961 book ‘‘The Myth of Mental Illness’’ questioned the legitimacy of his field and provided the intellectual grounding for generations of critics, patient advocates, and antipsychiatry activists, making enemies of many fellow doctors, died Saturday at his home in Manlius, N.Y. He was 92 and died after a fall.

Dr. Szasz published his critique at a particularly vulnerable moment for psychiatry. With Freudian theorizing just beginning to fall out of favor, the field was trying to become more medically oriented and empirically based. Dr. Szasz saw psychiatry’s medical foundation as shaky at best, and his book hammered away, placing the discipline ‘‘in the company of alchemy and astrology.’’


The book became a sensation in mental health circles and a bible for those misused by the mental health system.

Dr. Szasz argued against coercive treatments, like involuntary confinement, and against the use of psychiatric diagnoses in the courts, calling both practices unscientific and unethical. He was soon placed in the company of other prominent critics of psychiatry, including the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman and the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Edward Shorter, author of ‘‘A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac’’ (1997), called Dr. Szasz ‘‘the biggest of the antipsychiatry intellectuals.’’

‘‘Together,’’ he added, ‘‘they tried their hardest to keep people away from psychiatric treatment on the grounds that if patients did not have actual brain disease, their only real difficulties were ‘problems in living.’ ’’

This attack had merit in the 1950s, Shorter said, but not later on, when the field developed more scientific approaches.

But to those skeptical of modern psychiatry, Dr. Szasz was a foundational figure.

‘‘We did not agree on everything, like his view that there is no such thing as mental illness,’’ said Vera Hassner Sharav, president and founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection . ‘‘But his message that people get designated as ill, labeled, and then shafted out of society and preyed on by an industry dominated by drugs, that’s where he was very valuable.’’


After making his name, Dr. Szasz only turned up the heat. From his base in the psychiatry department of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, he wrote hundreds of articles and more than 30 books, including ‘‘Psychiatric Slavery: When Confinement and Coercion Masquerade as Cure’’ (1977).

In 1969, in a move that damaged his credibility even among allies, he joined with the Church of Scientology to found the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.

Dr. Szasz was not a Scientologist, and he later distanced himself from the church, but he shared the religion’s critical view of psychiatry. His provocations were not without cost. In the 1960s, New York mental health officials, outraged at his attacks on the state system, blocked Dr. Szasz from teaching at a state hospital where residents trained, according to two former colleagues. Dr. Szasz bristled but had little recourse, and his teaching was curtailed.

Thomas Stephen Szasz was born in Budapest . His family moved in 1938 to Cincinnati. He earned a degree in physics from the University of Cincinnati and graduated from the university’s medical school in 1944.

After a residency, he enrolled at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, earning his diploma in 1950. He worked at the Chicago institute and served in the US Naval Reserve before joining the faculty of ­SUNY Upstate.