The Myths of Mental Illness: A Thomas Szasz Appreciation Revisited
In 2018, reacting in part to an endless litany of cases over the years of university students telling me, usually in matter-of-fact tones, that they and/or their friends had been prescribed brain-altering psychological drugs to treat depression, anxiety, sleep problems, or what have you, I finally decided to sit down and sort out in writing some of my various frustrations at this mass medical malpractice that passes itself off as the “mental health profession” today. Drawing together my experience with a few special cases I knew intimately, along with the catalogue of stock phrases with which most victims of this malpractice, healthy young people with no need for brain alteration, have been indoctrinated by their doctors, friends, and the mass media, I spent some weeks searching for a focal point for my argument, essentially a means of corralling my general disapproval of the normalization of this widespread physical abuse in order to make the necessary case as logically and concisely as possible.
I found my required focal point by returning to my (and many other people’s) earliest teacher on this issue, Thomas Szasz, whose famous essay “The Myth of Mental Illness,” along with other writings, had made a great impression on me as a young man, informing one element of my own lifelong skepticism about the methods and premises of modern psychological theory and practice. In fact, I chose to frame my own critique of the soul-stunting and independence-sapping effects of today’s psychiatric drug mania as a kind of tribute to the psychiatrist who stood up against this tidal wave of materialist reductionism, political mass manipulation, and pharmaceutical profiteering back when such resistance could have made a difference — if only his profession as a whole had not already succumbed to the cowardice of collectivist careerism so completely as to effectively become a crucible for its one brave dissenter, Dr. Szasz. He passed the moral test, but only, as is so often the case in the modern world, by being willing to relinquish his good name and his respectable career within his profession in exchange for the preservation of his soul and his dignity.
The result of my return to Szasz’s writings was a pair of essays, published a year apart, examining these issues — the pseudoscientific distortions inherent in the concept of “mental illness” as currently applied, and the cataclysmic social effects of this pseudoscience as manifest in medical practice — in some detail, examining the current leading voices in the field of psychological reductionism in the light of logic and earlier wisdom, including of course that provided by Thomas Szasz. Since these issues have arisen in public discourse again recently, particularly in connection with the “controversial” (i.e., professionally and academically nonconforming and uncomfortable) research of one Mark Horowitz — a case which I have written about on this website — I believe it is time to revisit my two essays on Szasz, which provide a wider historical context and deeper philosophical analysis of these matters. I therefore repost those two essays below, in their entirety.
The Myths of Mental Illness: A Thomas Szasz Appreciation, Part One
Originally posted August 6, 2018
The most humbling honor of being a teacher — I mean a teacher, not just a salaried “education worker” — is earning the trust of variously perplexed, abnormal souls who have intuited that they need some extraordinary help with their self-understanding or their relationship to the world around them, and have come to believe that you might be able to provide that help.
This would be true in all times and places, insofar as any teacher is, in a certain sense, a personal guide to living, and such guidance is needed most by those who, for any number of reasons, have gotten off the track of “normalcy” that all social structures provide — or rather impose — as the default path for young people. However, in the midst of our late modern civilizational decay, in which materialist reductionism is engaged in an aggressive campaign to thwart the individual soul’s natural but infinitely difficult, exhilarating but often painful search for meaning, the teacher, in his definitive role as mentor and personal guide, also serves as something of an underground railroad for those whose minds remain somehow, miraculously, resistant to today’s pseudoscientific indoctrination, and are intuitively seeking an escape. That is, the teacher-student relationship, in its most serious instantiations, functions today partly as a means of spiriting a few souls, one at a time, out of today’s academic-materialist bondage, and into at least the antechamber of psychological freedom.
All eras have their boundaries for abnormal spirits to contend with, of course, often with horrific consequences. Nevertheless, I contend that our current age, with its historically unique and ubiquitous totalitarian tenor, has universalized an always-present but hitherto-isolated problem. Just as the globe, having been fully explored and “civilized,” no longer offers any hope of geographical escape, so the social and emotional universe, in the throes of scientific progressive indoctrination, has shone its corruptive light into almost every corner of modern being, leaving little hope for a lonely soul setting out on a makeshift raft in search of an uncharted desert isle.
One of the catastrophes of modernity has been the gradual disintegration of philosophy, the great unifying discipline and highest sublimation of the soul’s essential longing, into that hodgepodge of academic blind mice and presupposition-laden “specializations” that collectively and presumptuously call themselves “the social sciences.” That title is a double lie. These splinter disciplines, intellectually limited perspectives with no legitimate application to anything beyond their intrinsic boundaries, are neither sciences in the modern understanding of that word (behind which they seek unearned credibility), nor even particularly social, if by social we mean “pertaining to the interaction of human beings in societies.” For each of these specializations, in its own peculiar way, is hellbent on proving precisely that human beings do not exist, in any manner fundamentally distinct from rocks and trees, and hence that “society” is in truth nothing but a romantic-mythic label for the interaction of atoms of a certain type, in a specific environment. This reductionism has become endemic to economics, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the social sciences, since they detached themselves from philosophy’s comprehensive search for wisdom — and then turned around and started presenting themselves as wisdom, each discipline according to its own self-limiting, myopic “paradigm.”
Of all the social sciences with their various rationalizations for confusing narrow-minded exclusionism with knowledge of the whole, however, perhaps none is more directly and deeply damaging to the quest for essential human truth than the academic voodoo that dares to call itself psychology. For while sociology and anthropology reduce human community and politics to the lexicon of experimental farming — that is what “culture” means, although we have long since forgotten its original (and dubious) metaphorical sense in favor of using it with pseudoscientific literalness, i.e., as though it names a thing that tangibly exists — and economists are forever attempting to explain human behavior entirely according to the sub-rational cause-effect mechanisms of “the market” or “production and distribution” (consider how commonplace the dehumanizing phrase “human resources” has become), psychology alone plies its reductionist trade right in the wheelhouse of human life, namely in the nebulous workings of the soul itself.
Beginning from the quietly stated but loudly self-refuting premise that there is no psyche, i.e., no soul, i.e., no human life, modern psychology and psychiatry, lacking any serious philosophical underpinning — or even a simple awareness of the difference between words and meanings — has devolved into a weird amalgam of bad poetry and empirical pretense, leaping clumsily and, if you will, unconsciously, from fanciful, far-fetched metaphors to assertions of scientific certainty, seemingly unaware that it is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Among the most disturbing effects of this historical separation of psychology from its roots in the ancient theory of the soul, or even, for that matter, from the less profound early modern speculations on the “state of nature,” is that the discipline has followed its own metaphors down the rabbit hole and conflated what it calls “mental illness” — that is, moral and emotional difficulties — with literal physical illness, thereby reducing chronic or acute struggles in living as a human being among others, spiritual abnormalities, to the simplistic falsifications of material abnormality, i.e., disease.
Though the corruption of the “study of the soul” has had numerous adverse effects on late modern life, and served as the rationalization of so much tyranny, perhaps the most pernicious immediate effect of this pseudoscientific reductionism in the “democratic world” is our current widespread and astonishingly careless use of pharmaceuticals to treat so-called “mental illnesses” — everything from “attention deficit disorder” in children, to its adult equivalent, “depression” — as though these problems were no different, in principle, from bacterial infections or malignant tumors.
The idea implicit in all this psychiatric drugging of modernity is that feelings of deep sadness, restlessness, confusion, despondency, lethargy, detachment, frustration, fear, and inhibition are merely or essentially symptoms of brain or nervous system malfunctions which can and should be cured or palliated with medical treatment. This assumption — the core assumption of modern psychological practice when push comes to shove, or else the discipline would have no grounds for claiming to be a science, let alone for seeking medicinal cures for emotional problems — is, viewed from a philosophical perspective, nothing less than a denial of the moral and emotional existence of the individual human being.
One invaluable public character during the redefining of psychology into its outright elision of the psyche has been Dr. Thomas Szasz — a trained and (once-)respected psychiatrist who had the chutzpah to stand up to his entire profession at the very peak of its popular influence throughout modern society, sixty years ago, and say “The emperor has no clothes.” Specifically, Szasz made his name, and finally his infamy (within his field), by shouting from the rooftops that there is no such thing as mental illness. (Read his seminal article, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” here.)
Contrary to the caricatured position that has been ascribed to him continually since he began his public crusade in the late 1950s, Szasz was not saying that the psychological conditions now labeled mental illnesses do not exist. What he was saying, in fact, was almost exactly the opposite, namely that those conditions really do exist — as psychological problems, rather than as the mere misfired neurons or chemical imbalances to which his profession was effectively reducing them. In other words, his argument was that, aside from the relatively rare cases of behavioral or emotional distortion that are truly caused by verifiable and identifiable injuries to, or diseases of, the brain, most of the conditions that modern psychology and psychiatry categorize as illnesses, and propose to treat or palliate with drugs or other physical interventions, are merely what Szasz, speaking with admirable straightforwardness, called “problems in living.”
A problem in living, as he used that term, meant more or less what the real psychologists of the past — those who refused to reduce the mind to the brain, or the soul to the mind — always meant when discussing such conditions, namely moral and emotional confusion, the products of guilt, fear of the future, lack of direction, feelings of personal failure, profound discomfort with one’s personal relationships or social situation, and so on. Problems in living.
In a world full of uncertainty, human imperfections, the stresses and strains of ill-fitting but seemingly inescapable relationships, the gnawing awareness of past mistakes or wrongdoing which used to be accounted for under the now-discarded concept of “conscience,” and perceptions of personal inadequacy (real or imagined), it is impossible for any halfway sentient person not raised by wolves to avoid experiencing self-doubts, self-recriminations, or emotional isolation, of the sort that may cause some people to become hypersensitive, morally paralyzed, or just plain petrified of living, either among others or with themselves.
Today, all of these experiences, from the mildest to the most debilitating, are likely to draw from a “specialist” the recommendation of medicinal treatment — tranquilizers, antidepressants, and the like. The grave danger and misguidedness in this method of diagnosis and treatment is that, in rejecting or minimizing the moral-intellectual-situational context of psychological conditions, modern psychology is in effect denying that emotional problems are essentially related to how one lives, with whom one associates, and how one has learned to respond to the normal or exceptional vicissitudes of living as a human being among hundreds of others in one’s immediate surroundings, and millions of others in one’s political environment (using “political” in the broadest sense to refer to the pervasive social structures and community norms). This means the traditional and proper, though necessarily imperfect, method of helping people with such “problems in living,” namely helping them to see, understand, and perhaps change their ways of thinking about themselves, choosing their life paths, and judging their own past and present behavior, is now, at best, given a semi-polite nod as “folk psychology.”
Meanwhile, the experts forge ahead with force-feeding people with such problems in living exactly what they do not need, namely excuses and rationalizations for their confusion and unhappiness. “It’s not a problem with your life, it’s a disease,” they tell the suffering, which is to say “You can’t help feeling this way, you’re ill.” In other words, “Give up on your soul and your will — and take your meds like a good little patient.”
“We are trying to find the root causes of the recent increase in instances of attention deficit disorder,” say the experts, stroking their chins — while scoffing at suggestions that this new-fangled problem, to the extent it is not merely the politically convenient mislabeling of children’s healthy rebellion against the stifling conditions of modern schooling, might have something to do with the concurrent increase in the instability and disillusionment resulting from broken families, and the increase (or rather, the unprecedented appearance) of daily exposure to hours of jittery and rapidly-flashing TV images, computer and video games that suck the child’s developing mind right into that world of meaningless but anxious jittering, and popular music based primarily on the rhythms and language of sex and anger.
“We are just beginning to understand the complex mechanisms responsible for the increase in depression among young adults,” say the experts, with a mixture of pride and resignation — while denying outright that late modernity’s continual leakage of moral restraint, rational purpose, self-determination, simple community good will, and respect for psychological non-conformity, could be primary causes of a person (to quote a list of symptoms from a recent Guardian propaganda piece) “eating or sleeping too much or too little; pulling away from people and usual activities; having low or no energy; feeling numb or like nothing matters; feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared; and thinking of harming yourself or others.”
And so, carefully avoiding the causal connections that would undermine the easy reduction of problems in living to physical illness, late modern pseudo-scientists and their political, academic, and media enablers insist that they are here to help, and that “help,” first and foremost, means dispensing drugs that deaden the nerves, paralyze emotional responses, flatten the peaks and valleys of thought and feeling — all the while encouraging the chemically-altered to feel detached from their “illness” as victims, rather than engaged in their struggles as agents. In other words, encouraging them to embrace the defeatist fantasy that there is nothing they can do to improve their lives, so they should just lie back and let the specialists isolate and kill their disease for them — their “disease,” of course, being life.
(Far from suggesting that no one would feel “depressed” if only his or her social context or moral character were improved, I would argue that there is indeed a small proportion of the human population that will always tend this way, particularly in young adulthood. I believe, however, that rather than being something we ought to try to “fix” by drugging and coaxing such emotional outliers into compliance with our feelings of normalcy, this naturally-occurring kind of so-called depression — much rarer than the epidemic of mangled souls our social decay is producing today — has a valuable, though painful, function in the spiritual development of certain individuals. More on this in a future installment.)
During my final year teaching children full-time, one of my happiest tasks was introducing basic science to a small class of advanced Korean second-graders. Among the group was a girl who, in a more humane time, would have been labeled a dreamer. She could frequently be caught completely unaware of what was happening in class at that moment; she would sometimes violently swing her legs under her desk absentmindedly until her whole body was rocking for minutes at a time; during class, she would often assume a position that I affectionately called her “flying” position, shifting all her body weight onto her elbows and torso leaning across her desk, so that the lower half of her body was raised completely off her chair, legs shooting out behind her in midair, like a fledgling superhero.
She also had a few less innocuous habits or obsessions, the sorts of things that I thought could quickly become a source of mockery and humiliation as she grew older. As her female teachers seemed not to notice these more embarrassing habits, or not to care, I finally decided to do something for her myself. Taking her aside one day before class, I spoke to her in a very unassuming, somewhat indirect way, about the behavior in question. When I was sure she knew what I was talking about, and had already intuited that it was a “bad” habit, I made a little deal with her: If she could stop herself from doing this in class for a month, I would give her a treat.
Making sure she understood that this was not merely a game, but a little secret pact between us aimed at helping her overcome a nervous behavior — and hence, implicitly, moderating the nervousness that was causing the behavior — I was able to help her gain self-control merely by looking her directly in the eye for a moment whenever I noticed her falling into the bad habit. She would grin sheepishly and place her hands back on her desk. If there was a moment after such communication when the students were working privately, I might casually rap her on the head with my knuckle while walking around the room, to which she would respond with a giggle that bespoke a combination of conspiratorial delight and awakening pride. The communication between us was so subtle and swift that none of the other students would have known what was happening at all; the spiritual connection this episode established between us, on the other hand, and the basic trust it fostered in her, was having an even more profound effect than I might have hoped.
Not only did she break her bad habits, but she also began to participate more actively and attentively in class. Her off-the-wall dreamer’s personality remained intact — and made her fascinating and charming — but she could now interact with classmates in a more comfortable manner. She would often visit me before class, usually just to chat about nothing of significance. One day, however, she visited me at my desk in the teachers’ office, carrying a common children’s novelty pen with a small plastic bubble on the top, in which three tiny beads produced a soft rattling sound when shaken. Leaning in close, and speaking in a slow, deliberate whisper, she pointed to each of the beads in turn, identifying them: “Mother…Father…Teacher.” I smiled at her on the outside. On the inside I was shaken by the enormous power a teacher can have in a person’s life. I had broken the barrier; she had invited me into her bubble. None of my childhood teachers had had any similar effect on me, though Lord knows I could have used it. That, I suppose, was why I understood this girl’s need so well. I had been in her position — feeling awkward and detached in my social environment, becoming increasingly isolated and insulated within my imagination — so I knew, intuitively, what a little personalized (i.e., understanding) attention, and sincere, affectionate guidance could mean to such a child.
A spell had been at least partially broken; an essential dread of participating in the world beyond her parents’ protective cocoon was lifting. I was the safety net she had needed to step out onto the wire. Some months later, when I left the children’s academy to return to university teaching, my fledgling superhero brought me an envelope. It contained a long letter from her mother — whom I had only seen once and never spoken to, and who apologized meekly for her writing, as this was her first-ever English language letter — explaining how important I had been to her daughter’s emotional development.
That is what happened. But what would have happened, without my (or someone else’s) intervention at that difficult moment? In today’s climate, particularly in modern schooling, it is a very fair bet that she would soon have been subjected to professional counseling aimed at persuading her to “adjust to normal school life,” along with a “trial period” on drugs aimed at quelling her behavioral oddities and anxiousness — “so disruptive to the other children” (not at all actually), and “likely to cause her to fall behind in school” (the progressive imperatives of standardized indoctrination being sufficient grounds for drugging a child into listlessness).
This latter option, in fact — forced conformity to progressive social norms, abetted by mind-altering drugs — is the one currently being imposed on hundreds of thousands of children around the world. An article on the website of the U.S. federal government’s National Institute of Mental Health, written by a former director of the organization, announces that “7.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 were taking medication for ‘emotional or behavioral difficulties’ in 2011-2012,” and that the number of medicated children has been rising exponentially in recent decades. After condescendingly reciting some of the standard “popular” concerns about these numbers, the writer’s conclusion is that what the numbers indicate — get ready — is that the U.S. is not drugging enough children to deal with the breadth of the problem.
Another typical article about this practice begins this way:
One in ten of America’s children has an emotional disturbance such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or anxiety, that can cause unhappiness for the child and problems at home, at play, and at school.
“Unhappiness.” “Problems.” Well, no one wants to see unhappy children, or children having problems. But does it follow that smothering that unhappiness or those problems by whatever means necessary ought to be a social, educational, or familial priority? Or that unhappiness-erasure or problem-obliteration can even be justified at all, given the level of involuntary denaturing of innocent souls entailed by such “treatment”? All the sheep will be raised in the same pen. Black sheep will be whitewashed. There will be no “unhappiness” or “problems” in our progressive scientific world.
The matter-of-factness with which the self-described experts assume that artificially-induced “happiness” and the forced deletion of “problems,” achieved immediately and through brain-altering medical intervention, is the proper and primary goal of psychology — let alone that these experts have any idea what happiness is, or can prove that “problems” may not have a vital role in spiritual development — is nothing short of a vindication of Aldous Huxley’s terrifying prognostications in Brave New World.
We are there. Not heading there. There.
The Myths of Mental Illness: A Thomas Szasz Appreciation, Part Two
Originally posted August 19, 2019
In a recent essay on the U.S. government’s lurch into invoking “mental illness” as grounds for curtailing the gun ownership rights of American citizens, I reopened a topic of great interest to me, namely the politically convenient fallacy, or rather deliberate sophistry, inherent in the modern concept of mental illness. In response to my claim that there is essentially no such thing as mental illness, in the modern understanding of the term, a great friend, who always knows what to ask, and has no fear of asking it as forcefully as possible, challenged me on a central aspect of my account, thus affording me an excellent opportunity to dig a little further into an issue that lies at the heart of one of our age’s defining spiritual calamities, the reduction of the discipline of psychology to a politicized pseudoscientific instrument for the systematic, worldwide draining of souls.
Perhaps the best way to enter into this discussion is to begin by simply quoting the relevant passage from my previous essay, noted above, in its entirety:
Mental illness, as the term is commonly used, comprises a list of conditions of the soul which may or may not be manifested in association with certain bodily states, but most of which conditions are not identifiable with any physical fact susceptible to being repaired, or alternately judged irreparable, according to principles of medicine. The materialist biases and presuppositions of modern psychology, as with all social sciences, are theoretical presuppositions, interpretive models, and not facts of the sort one may observe under a microscope. And even as a materialist hypothesis, the concept of mental illness is intrinsically dependent on some theoretical construct of what constitutes “mental health.” For example, we know that blindness is a disability or deficiency, because we know what the organ of sight is supposed to do, and therefore we know that an eye which cannot perform this proper function is deficient. That is, we can clearly define the standard of health against which disease or disability may be measured. To say someone is blind is an empirical judgment, based on physical properties and propensities definitive of the human eye.
To say someone is mentally ill, by contrast, is a moral or metaphysical judgment, based not on any physical standard of health, but on a theoretical position regarding the proper operations of the human mind. To use judgments of mental illness as grounds for overriding specific rights the state is pledged to protect and defend is effectively to make the government the official and final arbiter in moral and metaphysical questions concerning the proper workings of the soul.
And this language of mental illness is designed, in modern legal discourse, precisely in order to be exploited in this way. As Thomas Szasz has famously explained, the phrase “mental illness” suggests that there is such a thing as a literal disease of the mind, an inherently incoherent notion based on an implicit identification of the mind with the physical brain, as though the only causes of emotional or other mental abnormalities or anomalies were neurophysiological causes, i.e., as though the mind (as distinct from the brain) were in no way affected by the individual’s personal judgments or understanding of particular external events. This implicit assumption is intrinsic to modern materialist psychology, and it has allowed that academic discipline to develop as a tool or handmaiden of political ideology, vastly distant from, and essentially unrelated to, the classical study of the soul (“psychology” in the literal sense) which was once the heart of properly philosophical investigation.
My friend and frequent devil’s advocate, who happens to be a physician, took issue with the above summary on two related points.
First (to paraphrase his argument), are there not cases where a specific physical ailment of the brain, such as a tumor pressing against it, has very direct effects on the mind’s functioning, such that these cases may be called “mental illness” in the strict modern sense, i.e., diseases of the mind with recognizable physical causes?
Second, while it is true that in many cases of what is called mental illness, there is no clearly identified causal connection between a particular brain condition and a particular mental condition, does it necessarily follow from this that no such causal links may ever be discovered? In other words, might it be possible for medical science to find such links in a future stage of development, thus vindicating the reduction of mental illness to physical illness, or rather the diseased mind to the diseased brain?
To begin with the first point — Are there not cases where abnormal mental functioning may be directly linked to a physical abnormality of the brain? — I must point out that in my original description of the issue, I did say “most” cases of what is called mental illness cannot be identified with a physical disorder. Of course there are literal diseases of, or injuries to, the brain, which have a direct effect on mental functioning. However, to call the mental results of such brain diseases “mental illness” only works as long as we are clear that this is strictly a metaphorical expression, a kind of elliptical way of describing the brain disease as a cause of abnormal mental functioning. The mental malfunction, in these cases, is categorically of a different sort from the majority of instances that are now subsumed under the term mental illness.
Furthermore, in such cases, the disrupted mental operations — for example the memory loss and uncontrolled outbursts of rude or random language associated with the physical pressure of a cancerous tumor upon the brain — cannot properly be identified as a disease of the mind at all, since they are really just symptoms of a brain ailment. By analogy, when you wake up with a sore throat after contracting a cold virus, you would never think it appropriate to say you have a “throat disease,” because this phrase would imply an illness essentially or primarily afflicting the throat itself. You have a cold, of which a sore throat is merely one of the secondary manifestations or symptoms. Likewise, for that matter, if I take post-operative pain medication which has nausea as a side effect, no one would describe my nausea as a “disease of the stomach,” because this would be highly and dangerously misleading; my stomach problem is merely a secondary event resulting from a physical occurrence elsewhere in my bodily system (in this case the pain medication’s operation) which is the primary event.
Hence, the use of the phrase “mental illness” in cases such as tumors or other identifiable physical ailments of, or injuries to, the brain, is not merely applying the term to cases of a different nature from most instances of what is called mental illness, thus rendering the term misleadingly broad; it is also, due to this excessive breadth of application, a convenient rhetorical cover for the psychological profession, which may hide behind these verifiable cases of physically-caused mental malfunctions as a means of obscuring or justifying the much wider application of the same term to all those cases in which direct physical causality is not only unverifiable, but fundamentally implausible.
In fact, the very reason I follow Szasz in insisting on this hard distinction between mental abnormalities caused directly by diseases of the brain, and those (the vast majority) caused by non-neurophysiological conditions, or what Szasz, in accordance with the older and more serious tradition of his profession, aptly calls “problems in living,” is that in contemporary psychological jargon, the two types are treated as essentially the same, which is to say that all abnormal or troubled or simply unusual thought processes or emotional states are reduced to “brain diseases,” leading to many dangerous results from a political point of view, and extremely harmful ones from a moral and spiritual point of view.
It is the loose, reductionist modern notion of “mental illness” (most of which, remember, is not caused by observable illnesses or injuries of the brain) that has made modern clinical psychology the catastrophic soul-mangling racket it is. Once the notion is generally accepted, not merely by the “uneducated public,” but especially within the scholarly and pseudoscientific realm of the experts, that mental illness is just another category of physical illness, pernicious results necessarily follow. The reductionism and its implications for our understanding of what the mind is, become so ubiquitous and deferentially accepted by “the masses” that eventually the implicit theoretical presuppositions of this view – which are purely philosophical in nature and can have no materialist scientific basis whatsoever – become commonplace beliefs, leading to practical effects in all areas of social and political life.
For an example of such a presupposition, as well as one of the preeminent examples of the corruption of modern psychology, there is the belief which underlies the easy and widespread prescription of psychological medication today, namely that a certain kind of emotional equilibrium or “stability” – the patient no longer being upset – is the de facto “healthy condition” for all minds, such that if that goal is achieved, by whatever medicinal means are required, we may assume the “mentally ill” person has become healthy again, or at least that the drug is effectively and beneficially simulating the healthy condition, as, by analogy, Synthroid simulates the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland.
For a more concrete example, a student I taught in a class last fall came to visit me late in the semester for some winter vacation reading recommendations. I learned in conversation that her mother had died that past summer, and later learned that the death was a suicide, and further that the student herself had found her mother’s dead body. In the weeks immediately following this family nightmare, the young woman, reasonably enough, urged her family members to see a reputable counselor for help getting through the shock and complicated feelings. The counselor gave them tranquilizers, and told my student to use them.
Why did she need a brain-altering drug? Was there something wrong with her physical brain? No, of course not; she was in shock over the sudden and unexpected loss of her mother – not hysterical, not suicidal, not even weeping uncontrollably. Just sad and confused. In truth, I’ve probably never met a more grounded, self-controlled, level-headed twenty-four-year-old woman, regardless of life conditions, so I know what the psychologist was looking at. And yet this clinician, an expert in this field, was immediately certain, within the timeframe of an initial consultation, that there was something wrong with her that required medicine – in other words, something physically wrong with her.
Why? The reason is simple: It is now the standard operating assumption of clinical psychology, overriding all common sense to the contrary — although clinicians will still occasionally conflate the old (commonsensical) and new (pseudoscientific) paradigms rhetorically — that all emotional problems are in fact physical problems. If you tried to explain to this counselor that what was “wrong with” the girl was that she was sad because her mother had just died, he would undoubtedly have smiled condescendingly, and then patronizingly explained that yes, in layman’s terms, she was sad “because” her mother had died, but scientifically speaking what was wrong was that she needed to have her emotional state realigned to a more “stable condition” (though she was not outwardly unstable at all) by chemically altering her brain. That is to say, the underlying assumption here, all pseudoscientific reductionism aside, is a purely philosophical assumption (and quite a paltry and psychologically superficial assumption), namely that emotional stability is the default — i.e., healthy — condition of every mind at all times, and hence that restoring something that (to the clinician) resembles stability, by whatever means necessary, is the most urgent “medical” necessity in every circumstance.
Thus, while it is true that in a small minority of cases, what is (misleadingly) called mental illness is actually caused by a specific physical ailment of the brain, it is much more common today that what is called the treatment for mental illness (“stability”-inducing medication) is in effect an artificially-induced brain injury or disruption, designed to curtail and eradicate what might well have been the natural and healthy functioning of a mind trying to solve its problems. Problem-solving of the soul-developing sort is often painful and confusing, and necessarily so. In such cases, to subvert or short-circuit the natural path of pain and confusion may be to undermine any hope of the person reaching a truly restorative or life-enhancing resolution to his or her problem.
With regard to the concrete example I have noted, I can say this much for certain. The student of whom I am speaking eventually tried one of the tranquilizers, more out of curiosity than belief in it, and quickly decided never to touch another one. On the other hand, she spent her winter vacation reading several books I recommended, and then visiting or e-mailing me periodically to discuss them enthusiastically. (I chose well.) Near the first anniversary of her mother’s death, she came to my office to talk for a few hours, during which she told me all the details of that day which she had never told me (or anyone) before. A week later, she sent me the most meticulously handwritten and folded three-page letter you’ll ever see from any young person today – straight out of the era of Jane Austen — describing, in her very direct, unsentimental way, how much she had appreciated my help in expanding her horizons and sorting out her thoughts over the past year. All I did for her, apart from recommending good books suited to her temperament, was give her someone to talk to occasionally who was outside of the framework of friends and family, and who would listen carefully and ask her useful questions. That, after all, was what she was hoping to get from the professional counselor in the first place. But they rarely do that anymore, or they do it only in conjunction with an aggressive chemical assault on your brain, thereby causing exactly the kind of mental problem which results directly from an abnormal brain state — but an abnormal brain state imposed, in this case, by the supposed health providers themselves. Worst of all, today’s leading psychological experts define such medicinally-induced mental problems, their artificial short-circuiting of the mind’s often painful but necessary winding path of self-discovery, as “healthcare.”
I turn now to my friend’s second challenge, namely whether medical science might, at some point in the future, actually discover the physical-mental causal links that are not now apparent in most cases of “mental illness,” thereby invalidating my claim that mental illness, in the modern sense of the term, entails a false reduction of the mind to the brain, by implying that there are literal diseases of the mind (or soul), in the sense in which there are diseases of the body. My friend notes that although he is not prepared to concede the inevitability of such a complete reduction, there are “some who no doubt would maintain that all of those things that we call conditions of the soul may some day turn out to be the product of abnormal brain structure and other cellular or genetic disease.”
In fact, there are not merely “some” who would maintain this; all maintain this, though not always with the same degree of assertiveness. Thomas Szasz was a formerly respected member of his profession who died essentially in professional exile, because at the peak of his career he dared to draw out the full implications of this reduction of mental illness to physical disease, and explained why it is so forcefully defended by the psychological community and the legal and political establishment, against all logic and common sense. Aldous Huxley had already explained more or less this same phenomenon much more forcefully in Brave New World.
Here is a key expository passage from Szasz’s seminal 1960 article, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” one which warrants a careful reading and rereading:
The concept of illness, whether bodily or mental, implies deviation from some clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the structural and functional integrity of the human body. Thus, although the desirability of physical health, as such, is an ethical value, what health is can be stated in anatomical and physiological terms. What is the norm deviation from which is regarded as mental illness? This question cannot be easily answered. But whatever this norm might be, we can be certain of only one thing: namely, that it is a norm that must be stated in terms of psycho-social, ethical, and legal concepts. For example, notions such as “excessive repression” or “acting out an unconscious impulse” illustrate the use of psychological concepts for judging (so-called) mental health and illness. The idea that chronic hostility, vengefulness, or divorce are indicative of mental illness would be illustrations of the use of ethical norms (that is, the desirability of love, kindness, and a stable marriage relationship). Finally, the widespread psychiatric opinion that only a mentally ill person would commit homicide illustrates the use of a legal concept as a norm of mental health. The norm from which deviation is measured whenever one speaks of a mental illness is a psycho-social and ethical one. Yet, the remedy is sought in terms of medical measures which — it is hoped and assumed — are free from wide differences of ethical value. The definition of the disorder and the terms in which its remedy are sought are therefore at serious odds with one another. The practical significance of this covert conflict between the alleged nature of the defect and the remedy can hardly be exaggerated.
To say that we may someday find all “abnormal” mental conditions to be the products of abnormal brain structure or other physical diseases is to say that someone feeling sad because her mother, whom she loved, has just died, is unreasonable. It is to say that feeling lonely and lost because you live in a society that encourages universal conformity to standards of life and belief that offend your sensibilities is unscientific. It is to say that feeling uncomfortable in normal social situations because one feels pushed to indulge in pleasures or behavior one finds morally or spiritually corruptive is a superficial explanation. The implication being, of course, that the reasonable, scientific, and profound explanations for these mental conditions (sadness, loneliness, social discomfort) will and must always be explanations which identify physical causes in the subject. Personal practical experiences being filtered through one’s moral perspective, one’s peculiar temperament, or one’s intellectual position of social or philosophical dissent, can never be allowed as primary explanations of painful or confused mental states. According to modern psychology, such explanations are, at best — or rather at worst — merely laymen’s language used to name “mental illnesses,” i.e., abnormal thoughts and feelings of the sort that involve emotional discomfort, intellectual confusion, or in general a feeling of isolation from the stable daily life of the society around you.
By definition, these isolating mental states are identified by the progressive social science of modern psychology as evidence of disease, which, although the experts are careful to avoid admitting that this is what they are really saying, means nothing other than that modern psychology believes these states are wrong — which is a philosophical judgment with no scientific basis whatsoever. These states must therefore be corrected, i.e., eliminated.
Thus closes the nice, tight circle of reductionist absurdity: External events do not occasion unpleasant mental states; physical anomalies cause them. Emotional stability, meaning a lack of unpleasant or abnormal (i.e., isolating) mental states, is the overriding standard of mental health. Any medical intervention aimed at stabilizing the immediate emotional state of the subject by altering his current physical states is therefore beneficial.
The fantasy that someday everything we now call “mind” or “soul” will be explained by physical causation is the crux of the modern scientific materialist dream, and means nothing less, in theory and in practice, than the literal annihilation of the human race as a species of living beings who experience and think. This, as I have written elsewhere, is modernity’s great self-contradiction, and will be the source of its ultimate disintegration.
A final note. I absolutely agree with Szasz’s argument that, apart from the myth of physical causality per se, the biggest fallacy of the modern notion of mental illness lies in the premise that the items identified by modern psychology as illnesses are being so identified on medical or scientific grounds. They are, as he says, always and necessarily identified as illnesses on non-scientific grounds: according to ethical standards, social standards, legal standards, and so on. Apart from all the other dangerous implications of this well-hidden fallacy, I am particularly interested in its effects in the area of assessing people of what used to be called different temperaments. Reductionism always means simplification, which in turn means that once one has determined one’s norm or standard of mental health — for example, feelings of stability within one’s social milieu, and a lack of (“unhealthy”) isolating feelings or thoughts — this standard may be used to assess and treat everyone. This is why it becomes so easy for modern psychology to dismiss grief and confusion as mere illnesses to be cured, rather than natural (in the sense of humanly beneficial) responses to externally-imposed conditions, to be accepted, guided, and allowed to pass through to their proper and fruitful resolutions, which will be forms of spiritual growth. That sadness is an “unhealthy” mental state, for example, is one of the purely ethical judgments Szasz mentions which pretends to be a medical diagnosis. It is through this conflation of the implicit, unscientific presupposition with quasi-scientific language, that, as we have seen, we end up with professional clinicians who knee-jerkingly prescribe brain-altering drugs to a person whose mother just committed suicide, as though the person’s problem were physical in nature — or more precisely, as though her sadness under the circumstances indicated any kind of mental problem at all.
This opens out on a broader issue, beyond the materialist reductionism itself, which is the psycho-social intentions of the professionals and their public advocates, with regard to the implications of this reductionism. I end here by citing one example of what I mean, to which I will return in a subsequent installment of this series — perhaps the definitive example when all is said and done. Consider the shift in modern psychological language from the ancient term “melancholy” to the modern, vaguely medical-sounding “depression.” The traditional language of spiritual abnormality has thereby been shifted into the language of sickness. In other words, the abnormally taciturn and socially-unfit temperament — the philosophical temperament, as traditionally understood — is now redefined as intrinsically mentally ill, implying the necessity and desirability of immediate and direct physical intervention to combat, i.e., cure, the illness, the “depression.”