Law, Liberty, and Psychiatry: An Inquiry into the Social Uses of Mental Health Practices

Law, Liberty and Psychiatry - Thomas Stephen Szasz We choose. Szasz is uncompromising in this belief. We are not machines and thus we always have some choice in how we act- hence we are always responsible for our conduct. pg. 135. Szasz took this position 50 years ago in response to the criminal justice system’s attempt to find causal connections to criminal behavior. A trend that has heightened beyond anything he had to deal with in his time. Today we have drug courts, mental health courts, veteran’s courts, and the list goes on and will multiply as time passes. All motivated, in Szasz’s opinion, to escape the undeniable truth of what this system does. It punishes.

However, punishment is something we, as a society, have become increasingly uncomfortable in doing. We mask our true intent behind catch-phrases for rehabilitation, protection of the public and treatment. It’s easier to judge a man if you view him as inferior. And mental illness has become a term of classification to encourage oppression.

Szasz is relentless in damning the forensic psychiatrists who have blurred their responsibilities of treating patients with assessing their patient’s risk to society. The use of mental health “treatment” facilities as alternatives to prison have become the preferred tool of oppression. An excellent example can be seen in the civil commitments of sex offenders who are deemed dangerous after finishing their prison sentences. All under the guise of commitment, and not imprisonment, people can be locked away for the rest of their lives as they receive “treatment“. If you think this is hyperbole, look at Wisconsin State Statute Chapter 980. Other states have their versions too. Psychiatrists have become wardens.

Szasz is also equally blunt in how to address these issues. If we have lock up someone against their will, we must take responsibility for why we do so. If we do not like the choices a manic schizophrenic makes, we imprison them. Maybe it’s a prison, treatment facility or hospital. But it’s still imprisonment. Szasz challenges us to make our prisons humane places instead of carving out supposedly humane facilities for those who we sympathize. By making separate facilities, we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t oppressing people. We comfort ourselves with our sensitivity and pride ourselves on our humane dispositions. We lie to ourselves.

In this age of political correctness, it’s important to have thinkers like Szasz. Thinkers who remind us that changing the way we discuss things can be an instrument for positive change but it can also mask, and further complicate, the societal faults we are unwilling to face.