The Myth of the Myth of Mental Illness

The views of Thomas Szasz (1976) were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. He proposed that rather than being an actual disease, mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, were artifacts or creations of psychiatry. In short, he believed that mental illness does not really exist. The extensive biological evidence that an active disease process exists has discredited this theory. Szasz built his theory on a single observation, which was undoubtedly true at the time, but reached a conclusion that was undoubtedly false. Szasz believed that all assertions about human behavior (including diagnoses) by psychiatrists and psychologists are subjective observations based on value judgments, not scientific judgments. In short, judgments, like diagnoses and competency, were solely matters of opinion rather than scientific facts. There is a body of research that supports this contention (Rosenhan, 1973). Szasz's position was simple: He believed that we should not define mental illness as a disease unless a "brain lesion" could be found.

Since that time, a variety of functional and structural problems have been found in the brains of people with schizophrenia; specific regions of the brain and neurotransmitters have been identified as described earlier in this chapter. In addition, the symptoms and functional deficits experienced by the millions of people who have schizophrenia are quite real and have a profound effect on their lives.

Other outdated theorists include the late British psychiatrist and author R. D. Laing who believed that psychosis was actually a healing process (Torrey, 2001). Laing believed that through psychosis the individual regresses to the developmental stage at the core of the problem. From this stage, it then becomes possible to bring about a cure. Based on that idea, Laing believed that the professionals' task was to encourage regression, or psychosis, rather than try to stop it. The helper would work with the individual in the psychotic state to help them mend themselves. To accomplish this for his patients, Laing created a clinic where they could experience their psychosis in a safe environment without interruption. Laing's approach was not only unhelpful, it was probably harmful. There is strong evidence that psychosis and regression are accompanied by sometimes irreversible brain tissue atrophy.

The beliefs of Loren Mosher (Mosher & Burti, 1989), formerly of the National Institute of Mental Health, are similar to Laing's. He believed people with schizophrenia should not be treated with medication because it deprives patients of "the experience" of their symptoms. His concern was that they would become out of touch with themselves. Given the growing evidence of the medical-biological nature of mental illness, such thinking is tantamount to saying that people suffering from heart disease should not be treated because it would interfere with their experience of angina (chest pain).

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