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The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct Paperback – February 23, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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"Bold and often brilliant." -- --Science --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

A classic work that has revolutionized thinking throughout the Western world about the nature of the psychiatric profession and the moral implications of its practices. "Bold and often brilliant."--Science --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Anv edition (February 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061771228
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061771224
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Thomas Szasz (born 1920) is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center. He is a well-known critic of psychiatry, of the social role of medicine in modern society, and is a social libertarian.

In the Preface to the First Edition (1960) of this book, he writes, "Although my thesis is that mental illness is a myth, this book is not an attempt to 'debunk psychiatry'... although I consider the concept of mental illness to be unserviceable, I believe that psychiatry could be a science. I also believe that psychotherapy is an effective method of helping people---not to recover from an 'illness,' but rather to learn about themselves, others, and life."

Here are some representative quotations from the book:

"In this respect---and indeed not only in this respect---psychiatry resembles religion rather than science, politics rather than medicine."
"In ... the traditional psychiatric view, the physician defines what is good or bad, sick or healthy. In the individualistic, autonomous 'psychotherapy' which I prefer, the patient himself defines what is good or bad, sick or healthy."
"By and large, such persons impersonate the roles of helplessness, hopelessness, weakness, and often of bodily illness---when, in fact, their actual roles pertain to frustrations, unhappinesses, and perplexities due to interpersonal, social, and ethical conflicts."
"Mental illness is not something a person has, but is something he does or is."
"There is no medical, moral, or legal justification for involuntary psychiatric interventions. They are crimes against humanity."
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I will start by saying I have Bipolar Disorder, and have struggled with it for many years.

I've had some time off recently, so I wanted to really investigate the science behind my disorder. I started with two books on mental health policy over the past 50 years ( "American Psychosis" for a negative take, and "Better but Not Well" for a more positive, mainstream take), then I read the latest psychiatric information about the disorder- the suspected genetic causes , the brain chemistry approach, the neurological evidence from the official peer-reviewed literature. I altogether found it unsatisfying. Everywhere I turned, it was always "While the specific mechanism is unknown, it is believed..." or "While specific genes cannot be found, it does seem to run in families..." Even the neurological explanation didn't seem able to distinguish cause from effect, or come up with any predictive mechanism. I began to really question the mainstream, so I read "Anatomy of an Epidemic", which was an excellent summary of all the research showing that the brain-chemistry model is ineffective. I even investigated my own medication, and found that Lamictal, the primary drug of choice for bipolar treatment, was found to be ineffective in 7 out of 9 clinical trials ( Of course GSK only published the positive two).

All Thomas Szasz really says here is that we can't view mental illness, that is to say, the major mood disorders and psychoses, as normal diseases. We can't pretend that mental illness is some exogenous force that is totally irrelevant of the victim's life experiences, the victims traumas and tragedies, and the victim's behaviors.
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Format: Paperback
Szasz is identifying a mechanism which prevents us from looking more seriously at the root of the mental patient's problem, namely the social and personal circumstances in which the patient is trapped. He discusses the advantage to both patient and doctor not to identify the true root of the problem and suggests that the situation is best analyzed in game-theoretic terms. He also isn't judgemental of the person playing the game. He feels that they are generally placed in impossible situations, and display these odd behaviors as the most reasonable way to fill genuine needs which would not otherwise be met. This seems to me an important message and I found a lot that interested me in the book. But it doesn't cover many cases including the one that most interests me.

I turned to Szasz because I was interested in how the surge in diagnoses of autism is influenced by the tangled web of social expectations and law. Szasz might say (and I would agree), that autism does not qualify as `mental illness', because it probably has a physiological basis, albeit one which hasn't been identified. However, in the absence of this identification, autism is `treated' primarily by mental health professionals who have as yet to find a `cure'.

Szasz discusses mental illness as if it involves no physiological change whatever, despite the fact that, for example, hallucinations can be drug-induced. When I enjoy the view out my window, that experience is probably associated with some change in my organism. I don't know how objectively they can now distinguish between physiological changes which are structural and those which reflect mere transitory states.
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