John Mariani reports for syracuse.com:
Dr. Thomas S. Szasz, a psychiatrist who questioned the existence of mental illness and fought against the forced treatment of patients, died Saturday at his home in Manlius. He was 92 and died from complications from a fall and a spinal compression fracture, his family said.
In “The Myth of Mental Illness,” published in 1961, Szasz argued that behaviors that colleagues attributed to diseases of the brain actually described “problems in living.” He called treating people against their will “a crime against humanity” in a 1992 profile in The Post-Standard.
“I am probably the only psychiatrist in the world whose hands are clean,” Szasz told the newspaper. “I have never committed anyone. I have never given electric shock. I have never, ever, given drugs to a mental patient.”
The approach Szasz rebelled against treated people as patients whose behavior somehow failed to meet the expectations of government or some other authority, said Dr. Rebecca King, a protege of Szasz who practices child and adolescent psychiatry in Syracuse and teaches at Upstate Medical University.
He believed people should seek a psychiatrist’s help after they themselves recognized a problem, and that the psychiatrist should help them talk through the issue and provide advice, when asked, King said.
Szasz did not spark a revolution in psychiatry, but inspired practitioners to look at the moral and legal propriety of some practices, in particular cases, said Dr. Robert W. Daly, a professor of psychiatry, and of bio-ethics and humanities at Upstate Medical University who studied under Szasz.
“Many of the specific things he sought to bring about have not changed. We have civil commitment laws and so on,” Daly said. “But the discussion of the use of coercion and forced treatment and all that, I think he had a real impact on the discussion of those matters within the profession and within the law itself. He helped sensitize everybody to what in fact they were doing.”
Born in Hungary, Szasz (pronounced ZOZ) emigrated to the United States in 1938 and graduated at the top of his class from the University of Cincinnati medical school in 1944. He became a professor of psychiatry in 1956 at what is now Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
Szasz became the school’s most popular professor, attracting residents who specifically wanted to study with him, according to a history of the psychiatry department published in the university’s Alumni Journal in 2006.
“The Myth of Mental Illness,” one of 35 books and hundreds of articles written by Szasz, gained him an international reputation.
Later writings generated a political backlash from Albany in the early 1960s that almost cost him his job, caused a rift with his boss and split the faculty, the Alumni Journal said.
In another controversial move, Szasz and the Church of Scientology founded the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group critical of psychiatry. He later distanced himself from the church.
Szasz’s critics disputed his position on mental illness, contending that science had found genetic or chemical bases for some mental disorders. HIs backers, and some detractors, credited him with standing against the misuse of psychiatry.
His daughter, Dr. Margot Szasz Peters, said her father would talk about his work with her when she was in high school. The talks provided “great life and professional lessons,” Peters, a dermatologist, said in an email to The Post-Standard.
“Most of all, he was a role model of kindness and honestly,” she said, “I was always struck that even those who disagreed with his views looked to him with respect, admiration and affection.”
Szasz retired from Upstate in 1990.
He was sued for malpractice two years later by the widow of a man Szasz was treating, claiming the man committed suicide six months after Szasz instructed him to stop taking lithium. The suit was settled two years later for an undisclosed sum.
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