We loved Thomas Szasz back in the day. That day was in 2001 – during a long, hot summer kicking back in a psychiatric clinic. Word spread of a controversial Australian supposed “anti-psychiatrist” who was a champion of our kind. Finally depressed teens had someone telling us we should kill ourselves.
He wasn’t Australian, he was Austrian. Which he wasn’t either because Professor Szasz was in fact Hungarian, but his biography wasn’t of much concern to us to be honest. Nor was actually reading any of his work, or getting our heads around his detailed and lucid theories. We wanted to hurt ourselves, and this guy was an authority. Who didn’t want us to hurt ourselves.
Thomas Szasz was committed (pun unintended) to challenging the moral and scientific foundations of modern psychiatry. Of particularly concern to him was how psychiatry could be used to manipulate an individual’s rights – for example discouraging valid alternative treatment options, and the use of psychiatric principles in the legal insanity defence. Arguably his most significant work sought to contest, if not dismantle, the concept of mental illness in toto.
(Not pictured – immense testes which could crack titanium.)
Dr Marc Roberts of the University of Abertay struck nails on heads in 2007’s “Modernity, Mental Illness and the Crisis of Meaning”:
Importantly, Szasz suggests that the ‘transgression’ of psychosocial, ethical and legal norms is not a consequence of ‘illness’, but of the attempt to confront and to tackle what he refers to as ‘problems in living‘…[these] are not the consequence of some ‘objective’, intra-personal ‘disease entity’, the consequence of ‘diseases of the brain’…but are instead ‘the expressions of man’s struggle with the problem of how he should live‘.
At this point an important clarification needs to be made:
By claiming that mental illness is a myth, Szasz is not suggestion that the variegated phenomena that are currently identified as mental illnesses do not exist; rather, he is claiming that such phenomena is a consequence of the attempt to confront and and to tackle the problem of how to live…
Roberts notes that ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ are getting in the way of true resolutions.
Perhaps the core text of The Icarus Project is the inspiring Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness. In a chapter entitled “If you can write the language that we use to discuss ‘mental illness’, what words would you use?”, a member writes:
Like many other things, “manic depression” is just a symbol, a container, a way of organizing life so we can communicate[…] sometimes it feels like both I and the other people in my life see me as having this THING, Bipolar Disorder; it feels disconnected, not right….
This statement wraps up in a beautiful fashion: ‘Structures are good as long as we realize that the purpose of a structure is to support freedom, not to box ourselves in.’
Personally I’m working my way back to Professor Szasz. His name circled the accretion disc of my darkest time (I’m not even sure we got the spelling right – ‘Zase’ keeps nudging my recollections). As my life and sense of identity have found a more even keel, I have to consider how I am going to carry on with an “illness” I should expect to be treated for, for the rest of my life. While I subscribe to philosophy and manifesto of Icarus, the project hasn’t indoctrinated me – I was already there, but lacking in a support network with these similar, more radical views.
I wonder if the old man would’ve found this encouraging. I am not an academic, certainly not a psychologist or scientist, and my reading has barely reached the surface of his immense body of work. I’m opening the tool box; reaching all the way inside and considering every available option. I get on great with Dr Sri, but his word isn’t gospel, and I’m lucky that his stature as a psychiatrist isn’t enough to end any debate.
What we were and still are people trying to define and manage our lives with…whatever ‘this’ is. I’m a little shy of ‘problem of living’, because it isn’t always a problem. Maybe try this:
We believe these experiences are mad gifts needed cultivation and care, rather than diseases and disorders. By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.
Good places to start: