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From This Broke My Heart To Fighting My Inner Demons Review of Thomas S. Szasz’s Article from 1960 “The Myth of Mental Illness”

Alia Khan

April 25, 2020

Dr. James Morrison

Psychology 310 History and Systems – 01

Historical Article: Thomas S. Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness

The important points of the article, The myth of mental illness by Thomas S. Szasz (1960), are summarized in the subheadings: mental illness as a sign of brain disease, mental illness as a name for problems in living, the role of ethics in psychiatry, and choice, responsibility, and psychiatry. According to Szasz (1960), there is no such thing as mental illness and the concept has outlived its usefulness, relegating it to a myth. Szasz’s first question is whether mental illness is a sign of a brain disease can be seen as analogous to “mental illnesses” being perceived as the same as all other physical diseases. Szasz believes this view reflects “two fundamental errors.” The first error Szasz reflected on was the concept that manifestations of the brain disease would not be the same as the physical diseases (Szasz, 1960). An individual’s maladjusted beliefs cannot be explained in their totality as a flaw of the nervous system (Szasz, 1960). As well as the second error Szasz reflected on was the concept of making the mental and physical symptoms have a dual symmetry (Szasz, 1960). What we think of ourselves and what other thinks about us involves the observers personal values (Szasz, 1960). As the notion Szasz (1960) mentioned that mental symptoms must be seen within the social and ethical context in a similar way to how the physical symptoms of an illness are seen within the context of anatomy and genetics.

Szasz (1960) makes a case that mental illness is a name for problems in living. Mental illness can be explained to be different from the disease of the brain which Szasz argues can be considered as disharmony of human living (Szasz, 1960). Disharmony of human living implies a divergence from societal norms (Szasz, 1960). Individuals can decide that something is wrong with themselves and/or others can decide that something is wrong as well (Szasz, 1960). The remedial action is presented within a therapeutic/ medical framework which leads to the question of whether deviations that manifest as a psychosocial, ethical, and/or legal divergence is correctable in a medical manner (Szasz, 1960).

The area of psychiatry is vast and filled with ethnical implications (Szasz, 1960). Szasz believes the socio-ethical orientations of the psychiatrist has a strong influence on the interpretation of the patients’ struggles with  the problems they have to cope with in their lives. On the contrary, Szasz postulates that mental illnesses are unique ways in which people express ideas that are unacceptable and/or out of the box. As well as not so long ago did people believe that individuals with problems in social living were possessed by demons and were witches (Szasz, 1960). The psychiatrist, in Szasz’s estimation, must assume the responsibility of the role of “participant observer” – not standing apart from what they observe, incorporating society’s norms. The choice, responsibility, and psychiatry that Szasz emphasizes is that social and personal problems exist, however, it is the labels and what we do with them which is of concern (Szasz, 1960). Hence, looking at this phenomena is with a fresh outlook to how the mental illness categories can be viewed as a problem of a person’s struggles in the society (Szasz, 1960).

The title of the article “The Myth of Mental Illness” I believe went really well with everything which was discussed in the article since I agree the “peace of mind” and the “place in the sun” concept are when people need time to relax and ponder their problems and struggles (Szasz, 1960). Hence, adhering to the myth of mental illnesses is just an excuse for people to avoid their challenges which they are facing in life. Therefore, people universally have the power to control their own happiness and sadness. We have the power to choose when we want to be happy or sad in our lives. Nobody else has that power only we do. Thus, we are not fighting with anyone else but our own inner demons and limiting beliefs in life. According to Mejias, Gill, and Shpigelman (2014), being part of a peer support group helped women with disabilities to boost their self-confidence levels and withstand the negative energy put out into the universe by people’s attitudes and beliefs. For an example, in the modern view to psychiatry we can see that people usually let things get to them even when the negativity is not worth even thinking about. Szasz also wanted to narrow down his focus to society’s beliefs in the myth of mental illnesses which obscures the true problem which is the challenges of human relationships.

Thomas S. Szasz could have thought of this concept more than 50 years after the field of psychiatry emerged in the 20th century by observing the people around him. This concept is something we can observe in our daily life. For an example, this broke my heart and I felt sad even though my brother was just joking with me. We were spring cleaning in our home and my brother found coins laying around. He handed them to me and said here you go poor lady you need Zakat. Thus, here is Zakat money for you. Zakat is Islamic Tax that Muslims pay annually out of their income to people living below the poverty level. I know I am well capable of creating my own business and generating my own revenue while spreading awareness about how to treat women and children who are differently abled. My family and relatives never thought I would ever be able to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree since I almost did not even graduate from high school. Now I am about to graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology with a Business Management minor. Therefore, now I am able to take their jokes if I choose too. As Mejias, Gill and Shpigelman (2014) found, the society’s negatives beliefs about disabilities is holding women with disabilities back rather than their actual disabilities. Unfortunately, even though I know my brother was joking I chose to cry over it and feel sad.

According to Hollingshead and Redlich (2007), the mother goddess is blind in matters of justice however class differences are detected. The lower socio-economic classes are treated with greater harshness and coercion when it comes to mental illnesses. The reason why it is pivotal even today to study mental illnesses in the field of psychiatry is due to the fact that sometimes people say things without thinking about what kind of an impact it can have on the individual they are saying things to or about. During my childhood I was bullied thus I still have a hard time with comprehending jokes since I still feel attacked. I have childhood wounds as a result of the bullying since my family never understood my learning disabilities. I always felt that I was an outcast. Also, in my early childhood my paternal grandmother thought that I was cursed. According to Mercer (2013), some faiths consider demons to possess an individual during traumatic events especially those that happen in early life. Some also believe that physical, emotional, and sexual abuse is the doorway for demons to enter the psyche (Mercer, 2013). Due to the trauma from the early bullying I still sometimes cannot handle jokes in my life.

In conclusion, Thomas Szasz (1960) called the attention to important considerations when we label someone as mentally ill. He pointed out the influence of the diagnoses psychiatrists’ value and beliefs and reflect on of the societal norms (Szasz, 1960). The field of psychiatry draws analogies between physical and mental illness which is part of the two flawed errors in reasoning (Szasz, 1960). This makes the case to view mental illness as a problem of living (Szasz, 1960). Hence, this helped evolve psychiatry to being one that incorporates a person’s unique personal struggles. Based on the myth of mental illness some individuals struggle with the ability to stay happy in their lives and not be sad all the time. The myth of mental illness is an ethical component that Thomas Szasz stressed in his work in the field of psychiatry. Thus, we should be aware of the impact of our viewpoints especially as they may be projecting our biases about the profession of psychiatry.


Hollingshead, A. B., & Redlich, F. C. (2007). Social class and mental illness: A community study. American Journal of Public Health, 97(10), 1756–1757. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.2105/AJPH.97.10.1756

Mejias, N. J., Gill, C. J., & Shpigelman, C.-N. (2014). Influence of a support group for young women with disabilities on sense of belonging. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61(2), 208–220. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1037/a0035462.supp (Supplemental)

Mercer, J. (2013). Deliverance, demonic possession, and mental illness: Some considerations for mental health professionals. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 16(6), 595–611. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1080/13674676.2012.706272

Szasz, T. S. (1960). The myth of mental illness. American Psychologist, 15(2), 113–118. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0046535

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