Saturday, January 24, 2009
Francesco writes: "My thinking had and continues to be shaped a great deal, by the writings of Thomas Szasz."
Francesco's comments to a recent blog post here were very thoughtful and much appreciated, and I hope he continues to post. As for the S-name, one look at the photo above and you see why every neuron in my limbic system lit up like a Christmas tree.
Thomas Szasz is a giant in the mental health movement, a deep thinker, and an uncompromising champion of our cause. The catch is that these days I hear his name invoked in the context of various nihilist anti-science, anti-intellectual agendas.
Believe me, I hate these people.
Dr Szasz was a catalyst for the reforms of the 60s and 70s that put an end to institutions and their concomitant abuses, and for this alone he deserves our undying gratitude. Dr Szasz also recognizes that psychiatric imprisonment isn't just about walls and restraints. It can be a subtle state of coercion that gets us buying into the idea that unapproved behavior needs to be medicated out of us.
It's a complex argument, but trust me, Dr Szasz has a point. Too often, we simply assign values to symptoms with no thought to context. Yes, depression is a bitch, but it can also be a time of healing, of recouping and regrouping. I know - I have experienced this.
But Dr Szasz and his followers would have us believe that we actually choose to have depression - or psychosis or a panic attack. It's as if the brain were nothing more than undifferentiated tofu. It's one thing to take psychiatry to task for imposing a particular set of values on us. It's another to deny, as Dr Szasz does, that there is no biological component to our behavior.
Dr Szasz's influence has fallen by the wayside in the face of scientific discovery. But psychiatry may suffer a similar fate. Psychiatry shows every sign of embracing science, but to what end? As long as they fail to address the basic question - What is good? What is bad? - then Dr Szasz will remain relevant.
Perhaps science can offer an insight. In behavioral genetics, there is neither a good gene nor a bad gene. Depending on context, the same gene variation may be an asset or a liability. Can the same be said of symptoms? For instance, hypomanic behavior may yield bad results. But what if we learned to control the hypomania?
These are issues that go to the core of our beings, to what we experience, to what we want out of life. This is a conversation we need to have, that we need to own. Antipsychiatry would love to crash this party. So would psychiatry.
The Two Toms
My totally surreal encounter with the Bizarro World parallel psychiatric universe of Tom Cruise and Thomas Szasz and how it didn't change my life.