Thomas S. Szasz, M.D., was an iconic figure in American psychiatry, perhaps the most famous and influential psychiatrist of the 20th century, and a personal and professional mentor. This September marks the fifth anniversary of Dr. Szasz's passing at the age of 92.
Best known for his 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, Szasz is frequently, but incorrectly, grouped with the "antipsychiatry" movement alongside R.D. Laing and others. Szasz's main premise was that mental illness represents a useful metaphor for human problems in living and that psychiatry, in its coercive and institutional form, functions as a mechanism of state-sanctioned social control. Despite his criticisms of coercive psychiatry, Szasz promulgated and practiced a form of psychotherapy he called contractual psychoanalysis (or autonomous psychotherapy), which emphasized the freedom and self-determination of the individual. It could be argued that this represents his greatest contribution to the field as we know it.
Szasz remained a full professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York for the entirety of his lengthy career, writing a total of 35 books and countless articles. At the height of his popularity, medical students from around the country would come to Syracuse for the opportunity to study under him. Despite his preeminence in the field, very few of the psychiatry residents and social workers I teach have ever heard of Szasz, and those who have tend to see him as a psychiatric flat-earther who "denied the reality of mental illness." But this is nonsense. While Szasz didn't believe in a category of disease known as "mental illness," he never discounted the human suffering associated with the term, instead preferring to conceptualize it through the lens of game theory.
My friend, psychologist Jeffrey A. Schaler, has recently published a new book on the life of Dr. Szasz titled, Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas, co-edited by psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Henry Zvi Lothane and professor of rhetoric and communication Richard E. Vatz. The book is an informative and enlightening collection of theoretical considerations, recollections, and personal anecdotes written by several authors close to Szasz, including the recently deceased Ronald Leifer, who trained under Dr. Szasz at SUNY in the 1960s. Other contributors include Joanna Moncrieff, the well-known critical psychiatrist, and Michael Scott Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell. The book reveals some of Dr. Szasz's most personal beliefs about the concept of schizophrenia, the meaning of mental illness, and the repression of his ideas within the psychiatric mainstream. It is, indeed, a book that lives up to its title.
Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas represents the culmination of years of work to capture the essence of a man who forever changed the landscape of American psychiatry. Jeffrey Schaler and his colleagues should be proud of their efforts to preserve the work of a psychiatrist who, as Jeff so rightly puts it, "was at least one hundred years ahead of his time."
Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas is available for purchase on Amazon.