45 Years, 45 Days: Is Mental Illness a Myth?


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

In 1961, Thomas Szasz published his groundbreaking book The Myth of Mental Illness. In Reason's August 1973 issue, M.L. Zupan grappled with the book and its controversial thesis:

For some time now the concept of mental illness and its corollary, an alliance between medicine and psychiatry, have come under attack from various sources. Dr. Thomas Szasz has been one of the first and one of the most outspoken of the critics. It will be the purpose of this paper to critically examine his book THE MYTH OF MENTAL ILLNESS, which Szasz considers fundamental to much of his later work. I will try to show that the arguments he presents against the mental illness concept are, in the last analysis, inadequate and that there are important shortcomings in his alternative theory of behavior. I shall also consider some of the implications of his position for several traditional problems in the field of psychiatry.

I want to make it clear that what I am not taking issue with is Szasz's point, made in THE MYTH OF MENTAL lLLNESS and brought out emphatically in subsequent publications, that involuntary commitment of mental patients is an abuse of the human right to liberty. Dr. Szasz instigated and contributed a great deal to the recent changes in some of the laws violating that right. Although he would probably disagree, I think that is a separate issue and ought to be argued on a different basis from the contention that "mental illness" is a myth—it therefore does not stand or fall with the arguments for the latter.