Dr. Thomas Szasz, the New York psychiatrist whose Don Quixote-like attacks on the psychiatric profession in the 1960s and 1970s led him to a position of prominence and influence before his radical ideas fell into disrepute and he faded into obscurity, has died. He was 92.
Szasz died Sept. 8 at his home in Manlius, N.Y., his family announced. He suffered from a spinal-compression fracture that resulted from a fall.
He came to prominence with his 1961 book, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” in which he argued that mental illness was not a disease but simply “problems in living.” In that and a series of subsequent tomes, he argued against using drugs to treat mental disorders, using insanity as a defense against criminal acts and committing people to mental institutions against their will. He called the latter act “a crime against humanity.”
In 1992, Szasz — pronounced “zoz” — boldly told the Syracuse Post-Standard: “I am probably the only psychiatrist in the world whose hands are clean. I have never committed anyone. I have never given electric shock. I have never, ever given drugs to a mental patient.”
Perhaps his most controversial act was allying himself with the Church of Scientology to found the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group that sharply opposed psychiatry and its treatment. Although Szasz was not a Scientologist, his cooperation lent a veneer of credibility to an organization inspired not by science but by a science-fiction writer, according to his critics.
He later distanced himself from the church, but his association with the commission and his other views led New York mental health authorities to block him from teaching at a state hospital where SUNY residents trained.
The crusader emerged at a time when many critics were questioning some tenets of psychiatry, particularly such actions as diagnosing women as “hysterical” when they refused to bow to the dominance of men or claiming that homosexuality was a mental illness. Some critics even agreed that too many “mentally ill” people were being locked away without proper foundation.
But Szasz, in effect, threw the baby out with the bathwater, arguing that the vast majority of psychiatric diagnoses were ill-conceived and scientifically baseless.
Nonetheless, his arguments did introduce some new ideas, Dr. Robert W. Daly, a psychiatrist at SUNY Upstate Medical Center, conceded to the Syracuse Post-Standard: “The discussion of the use of coercion and forced treatment and all that, I think he had a real impact on the discussion of those matters within the profession and within the law itself. He helped sensitize everybody to what, in fact, they were doing.”
In a 2006 profile in The New Atlantis, Szasz virtually conceded that he had been tilting at windmills. “I really don’t think I am falsifying it when I say I never had much hope of having an impact on psychiatry. I viewed psychiatry all along as more like the Catholic Church. What impact did Voltaire make on it? If you think about what happened since then, nothing! No, I didn’t expect to make any difference.”
Thomas Stephen Szasz was born April 15, 1920, in Budapest, Hungary. After his family immigrated to the United States in 1938, he received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Cincinnati in 1941. When he earned a medical degree from the university he was valedictorian of his class in 1944.
He studied psychoanalysis at the University of Chicago and, except for two years in the Naval Reserve, worked at the university before joining in 1955 what is now the State University of New York Upstate. He remained on the faculty until he retired in 1990 but continued writing and researching until his death.
Two years after his retirement, he was sued for malpractice by the widow of a man who committed suicide six months after Szasz told him to stop taking lithium for his depression. The case was settled out of court, and Szasz eventually gave up private practice.
Over half a century, Szasz published 35 books and hundreds of articles.
His wife, Rosine, died in 1971. He is survived by two daughters, Dr. Margot Szasz Peters and Suzy Szasz Palmer; a brother, George; and a grandson.