Honorary commemoration of Thomas Szasz

In honor of the memory of Thomas Szasz on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his death.
by Rene Talbot

Thomas Szasz was born in Budapest on April 15, 1920. He passed away 10 years ago on September 8, 2012. Thomas Szasz had offered to call him by his first name and so I will call him Tom hereafter. Tom was the world’s best known living psychiatrist until his death. In 66 years he wrote 744 papers and 36 books, so there was a publication by him almost every month.
In the process he illuminated just about every aspect of the human condition. He was awarded more than 50 prizes. One award I have to mention is when in 2002 he received the first Freedom Award of the Lunatic Offensive “for throwing light on the snakepit.”

When asked what he considered to be his most important contributions, he replied: “These are just two simple statements: there is no such thing as mental illness. And: if you are locked up in a mental hospital, you are in prison. You are not being treated or cured.” The reason this statement has intellectual depth is that it rejects the biologization and pathologization of behavior allegedly caused by pathological mental states as a logical error, a category error. For knowledge about bodies is obtained through physical observations, measurements, and mathematical calculations. Knowledge about the mind is obtained through linguistic communication and interpretation of meanings; it depends on interpretations of the behavior and expressions of other persons. Explanations about the soul and explanations about the body belong to fundamentally different areas of communication and knowledge.
The consequence of this cognition is that there is no psychiatric knowledge. Thus psychotherapy has rather a religious character, the typical characteristics of every psychosect. The closed wards of a psychiatric hospital are a prison, compulsory treatment is bodily harm, and the psychiatric vocabulary serves only as legitimizing rhetoric to stigmatize people and to exclude them from social relations, to denounce their fellow humanity.

Tom was the champion of adult self-determination, which stems from the adult person’s right to dispose of his or her own body. From this arise the essential derivations for which Tom stands:

  • First and foremost, as a defensive right, is the prohibition of a forced diagnosis, forced hospitalization, forced treatment, and incapacitation. Any medical treatment against the will otherwise becomes a torture measure, no matter how good the intentions. If a doctor deviates from this, he/she should face criminal proceedings for bodily harm and deprivation of liberty if this is reported to the police. When this has become everyday legal practice, it will be tantamount to the end of coercive psychiatry. The first, still individual, intermediate step towards this was taken by Tom with the proposal of a “Psychiatric Will” published in July 1982, which was later translated somewhat obliquely as “Psychiatric Testament” by the Lunatic Offensive and finally attained binding legal force in 2009 in the PatVerfue.
  • As a second deduction, it follows that there may no longer be a psychiatrically based criterion of “culpability” in a criminal trial.  Even a criminal offense cannot justify a violation of physical integrity through compulsory treatment. With the DGSP, since March of this year, the social psychiatry organized in Germany has publicly followed this view and thus the days of forensics will be numbered, even if legal doctrine, still forgetting human rights, doggedly clings to the two-track nature of the sanction regime.
    In the case of forensic evaluation, it is particularly striking to see how such moral and political questions as what guilt is and how the ability to be guilty is lost, are claimed to be answered scientifically and medically, and that this can then be treated psychiatrically. This is quite simply a major category error, which only serves the bogus justification of a brutal special criminal justice system with indefinite incarceration and torture-like forced treatment.
  • In the third place, I would like to mention the other side of the fact that drugs are administered in psychiatry with coercion. It is the forbiddance to take certain drugs because it is self-endangering, prohibition. So Tom is talking about the release of all drugs to adults. Inherent in the prohibition of certain drugs, as an ideology, is the claim of psychiatry to supposedly be the preventer of suicide and the suicide prevention institution. On an adjacent point, Tom pointed out that because of self-determination, there must also be no assisted suicide, that is, no killing on demand, which, labeled “euthanasia,” pretends to fulfill the will of the person killed, his or her alleged “desire.” On the other hand, what doctors-Nazis tried to cover up with the title “euthanasia” was quite simply systematic medical mass murder, at the beginning with the gas chamber, which were subsequently exported to Poland for the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Later, from 1942 to 1945, the murder was changed to targeted starvation, a death-starvation “diet” by the physician-Nazis. Despite this historical truth, in 2009 an attempt was made to manipulate the debate on the living will law in Germany by referring to an alleged “euthanasia” danger in order to prevent the law.
  • In addition, I would like to point out that Tom was the first doctor to publicly oppose all attempts to pathologize homosexual acts and to punish consensual intercourse among adults. And there must be no missing reference to how Tom, in many writings, described the therapeutic state as a particular danger to freedom.

All this would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize long ago. But I know from Mantosh Dewan, the chief of psychiatry in Syracuse, who has since become president of the Syracuse Medical University, that as of 2007 he was at least trying to convince the Nobel Prize Committee to give Tom such a prize. Unfortunately, Tom passed away before he could have been honored with this prize. But I hope an international appreciation will not take as long as it took for Ignaz Semmelweis, the inventor of hygiene, also born in Budapest, and life saver especially of many women. At least he was spared his fate of almost certainly being even killed in the psychiatric ward.