Reducing Depression To A Thing: Thomas S. Szasz’s “The Myth Of Mental Illness” Essay Samples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Health, Medicine, Disease, Psychology, Depression, Illness, Mental Illness, Jesus Christ

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/02/08

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Szasz argues in his essay, "The Myth of Mental Illness,” first published in 1960 that the concept of mental illness is an erroneous label. In this paper, Szasz’s essay will be thought together with the philosophical ideas inspired from Jennifer Hansen’s essay “Affectivity: Depression and Mania.”
In general, what do we really mean when we talk about mental illness? Szasz has a definition in mind: "All problems in living are attributed to physicochemical processes” (1). The point he makes is that this is a false claim. When thought of in terms of mental illness, for example, depression, in philosophy, is characterized along social, moral, and medical “lines of analysis” (Hansen 36). Depression is not a disease, but rather a faulty way of communicating, or at best, a system of beliefs. Szasz’s essay is provocative for it flies in the face of conventional wisdom about mental disorders. What is the difference between making a mistake on a math problem, versus erroneously believing that I am Jesus Christ? People who are depressed are often slaves of their erroneous thinking, and those who are manic act out behaviors that they later regret. Jennifer Hansen quotes, in her article on affectivity, quotes Immanuel Kant once said that sadness, or severe depression (which he called melancholia) was the result of the imagination gone wild (Hansen 41).
We can take Kant to mean that depression can lead us to feelings of profound thought, the kind of sublime thinking that philosophers long for in their investigations into the deep questions about human existence. Clinicians who treat depression do not see it this way. They see depression as something that needs a cure in the same that doctors have been searching for a cure for AIDS or influenza. According to medical research, more than nineteen million Americans suffer from depression (Hansen 36). Depression is not defined in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders as a feeling of the sublime. Depression is considered a serious mental illness. The argument is claiming that mental illness does not exist, bring up serious moral problems. If we are wrong in how we categorize mental illness, then we are wrong not only in our hope for a cure, but in the way those diagnosed with mental illnesses are treated.
Szasz wants to think hard about what we mean when we use the word “illness” or “disorder.” In Szasz’s defense, words matter. And the debate is relevant and significant considering how much time, money, and effort has been put into finding a cure for depression. However, to find a “cure” implies there must be a cause or a multitude of causes for depression. Szasz attempts to undercut the idea of causality when we talk about mental disorders. In his argument, depression cannot be a problem of the brain, but must be a problem of human communication, which is not necessarily a disorder or even an illness in the same way that Cholera is a disease or Lymphoma. Szasz makes a good point that perhaps we are thinking about mental illness in the wrong way. Mental health professionals define mental illness similarly to physical illness, except that the former “affects the brain” while the latter affects all other bodily functions. However, doesn’t depression cause physical ailments? A physical disease is fairly easy to comprehend. It is usually caused by a virus or a bacteria. It may not have a cure, but there is more hope that a physical disease will find a cure than a cure for depression. And what would that mean? Would everyone be happy? Isn’t the affect of everyday life, the feelings we have as human beings, that can range from sadness to joy, to fear, to boredom, part of the human experience?
People who are depressed may suffer from aches and pain, or feel very tired, but perhaps the point Szasz is making is that these symptoms cannot point to “mental illness” if we are trying to think of “mental illness” as an epistemological and neurological disturbance. In other words, he argues that the first error made in talking about mental illness is that a neurological defect is not the same as a “problem in living”. A depressed person does not have something wrong with a depressed neuron. There is no such thing. Even if it is determined that depression is related to a chemical imbalance, it is not as if a surgeon can cut into the person’s brain in the same way they can remove a tumor from a cancer patient. Depression also affects our ability to think, and to communicate, and its effects can be different for different people. In the case of manic depression, a person who believes they are Jesus Christ cannot be explained by a lesion in neuronal tissue in the same way someone’s Christian or Buddhist beliefs can be attributed to neurological disruptions. People who are often depressed act on misconstrued beliefs. Szasz’s point is brilliant. He says the categorical distinction to be made when we talk about mental illness is that we are always talking about a patient, and the one who makes the diagnoses. Certainly, it is a doctor who diagnoses a brain tumor. However, these diagnoses are based on empirical evidence. There is no empirical evidence, which we know of, that shows depression manifesting itself in a uniform way biologically across all patients diagnosed with depression.
The second error Szasz points out is that symptoms of mental illness are based on communication and not based on physical ailments. If my head hurts, I take an aspirin, or if my foot is sore I rub it with oil. However, if someone believes they are Jesus Christ, it takes a clinician to judge that not, in fact, they are not Jesus Christ. Mental symptoms, therefore, require judgments about communication. In other words, it is misleading for physicians to say “mental illness” as it relates to the brain, in the same that a tumor affects the brain. Perhaps, a person who is depressed who takes Prozac is not being cured of depression, but rather is being relieved of a physical ailment. Good health makes us feel better. Furthermore, if depression is the state of our mental state, then if we subjectively feel good for our health, it is only natural that we will feel better.
Furthermore, there is a general mistake people make in thinking that mental illness has to do with the stress of living as if mental illness connotes a disharmony among human beings. However, this kind of thinking presupposes that human beings, and how they interact with each other, is supposed to be in harmony. Szasz argues that this makes it seem as if mental illness is the cause of disharmony among people. It is arguing for a cause without any discernible effect, which is fallacious reasoning. Furthermore, we think of mental illness as a deviation from a norm, but what this norm means is hard to guess. Calling mental illness a deviation from the norm makes it seems as if mental illness is a “thing” and is made to be a problem of human living. Szasz does not think mental illness exist, so he is adamant on referring to the phenomenon as “real”.
There are two points to be made about Szasz’s remarks. First, it is dangerous to think of the stress of living as a disease. Living life has demands, and it is not always easy to handle the pressure. Certainly, some people are better at handling the problems of living than others. Some people cave under pressure, and others go into manic states or depressive states. Szasz is correct in pointing out that mental illness is not a “thing” in this way, but it is intimately bound up in the way human beings interact with one another. Norms are relative, and they can change from culture to culture. What may be considered strange behavior in one culture is normal in another one. For example, the proximity in which we feel in standing close to another person differs from culture to culture. Is it then abnormal if someone does not follow the scripts we have set forth in our society as to what delineates personal space?
It seems that Szasz is making an important ethical statement about we say about mental illness matters. Certainly now that we live in a time where psychiatrists are prone to diagnose depression and to prescribe medication. Of course, as Szasz suggests, there is a difference between psychiatrists and psychologists. In either case, if a person suffers from depression it is not like getting a rash on your skin. The person goes to a “shrink” to talk about their problems and in doing that activity can find relief, and ultimately the psychologist or psychiatrist makes a decision about their condition, whether they need further treatment.
As Szasz points out, mental illness is construed as a private experience. It is not public, in the same way, that is having a cold is public (7). The affectivity one feels from depression is private. It is based on a constellation of feelings and emotions. Certainly, the experience one feels when they are in physical pain is also private. I cannot physically feel another person’s pain, but I can feel empathy. Maybe what Szasz is trying to say is that we should move away from thinking of mental illness in the same way we think of cholera. The affect of feeling deep sadness does call for empathy. It is a different response if I tell my friend “I am depressed. I need to talk” than saying, “I stubbed my toe and I know you cannot experience the pain of how it felt.”
In sum, the debate on the philosophy and ethics of mental illness teaches a valuable lesson. By thinking of depression as fixable by a drug we are missing the point. We are missing the other factors that may have gone into the affectivity of the person’s lived experience. How much will an anti-depressant actually really cure a disease if, in fact, there is no such thing as a mental disease? It is not as if Szasz is saying we cannot care about other’s suffering, whether they be psychological or physical, but he is saying that we need a more holistic approach to the issue, one that is not reductive in our saying “mental illness.”

Works Cited

Hansen, Jennifer. “Affectivity: Depression and Mania”. in The Philosophy of Psychiatry: A Companion. Edited by Jennifer Radden. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2004, pp-36-53. Print.
Szasz, Thomas S. "The myth of mental illness." American Psychologist 15.2 (1960): 113.

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