June 15, 2005

The Myth of Mental Illness

I just watched One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest on DVD (for the first time) and I found it a great movie. Needless to say, I ended up with a negative view of mental institutions, perhaps overstated by the movie, but then I had those opinions basically since I can remember. I've never much liked hospitals (despite working in hospital records for a summer) but I've always hated mental institutions. The loss of control and the total denial of patients being taken rationally or being allowed to leave has always struck me as cruelly evil, wantonly abusive and horribly depraved. Of course, I wouldn't have been able to phrase it like that as a child, but I still had a strong reaction against it.

The views of Dr. Thomas Szasz are particularly interesting on the issue. I can't say I agree with everything he says, but I have to agree with his basic contentions and his conclusion: that psychiatry is often pseudo-science sham that relies on unproven or tyrannical methods.

The whole idea of civil commitment, that people who have been convicted no crime cannot be released until a few doctors say so, is ludricous and unfree. It's unconstitutional, a violation of 5th Amendment rights, not to mention 9th and 14th. Only a trial with all the 5th and 6th Amendment and other protections can deprive someone of his liberty in that manner. The potentially arbitrary and necessarily subjective manner of ending civil commitment doesn't help any, either.

Of course, the real question, independent from our rights, is just what mental illness means (Szasz-ophiles already know where this is headed). An illness or pathology is a medical term referring to an abnormal condition of the body. The mind is not a part of the body, so mental illness is simply a metaphor. Your mind doesn't really have illnesses, that's just using a term that sounds well-defined to describe behavior. Ultimately, mental illnesses are just a way to describe behaviors and actions. Some people behave strangely and mental illness is a way to describe those behaviors and to give some medical legitimacy to psychiatric guesswork.

I have to borrow his argument for the separation of psychiatry and state. We shouldn't be locking people up because they're crazy, which is no crime, especially in the unfree, unconstitutional manner by which psychologists replace the judge, the jury, the appeals process and the defense attorney. People should be free to pursue treatment without coercion.

If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. - Szasz

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