Does Mental Illness Really Exist?
Most scientists ignore people who claim mental disorders are not diseases or do not even exist. But the stakes are high. Some people in need of treatment may not get it if they adopt these questionable views. Understanding the views of people who do not believe that mental illness is a serious medical condition is the first step in fighting their misperceptions.
An Understandable Reaction to Stress
Thomas Szasz discounts the suggestion that schizophrenia and other mental disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association are true diseases. He introduced this idea in his first book, published in 1961, called The Myth of Mental Illness.
Szasz claims that society creates stresses that cause some people to react negatively. However, according to Szasz, these negative reactions are not mental illness and there is nothing amiss with the people who experience them. They merely have trouble coping with problems other people handle routinely, if not always comfortably. He faults society and the medical establishment for labeling and treating people who have problems living in the modern world as being mentally ill.
Szasz suggested that the troubling behavior of some individuals upsets other people. Mainstream society therefore invented the concept of mental illness to explain their behavior and offer a rationale for “controlling” them.
Mainstream psychiatrists and many others, including people who care for patients, see treatment, not “control,” as the reason for diagnosing mental illness. It is true that many patients claim there is nothing wrong with them. These claims often change after successful treatment. And many people who once suffered terribly from schizophrenia and other mental disorders have testified in interviews and in memoirs about the seriousness of the illnesses that once incapacitated them.
The Church of Scientology claims that in 1969, Szasz joined forces with it to create the anti-psychiatry organization called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). There are reports that Szasz has disavowed a link with the Scientology group, although his name was still listed on the website when this book went to press.
The misinformation that this and other anti-psychiatry groups propagate can easily be dismissed by people who are familiar with the field. The problem is that many consumers of mental health care are upset by their illness and therefore vulnerable to misinformation. Unproven assertions could potentially have serious negative consequences for people who are dealing with paranoia and other delusions.