By Dr. Jeffrey Schaler
Assistant Professor of Justice, Law & Society
It is fifty years now since Thomas Szasz rocked the world of psychiatry by writing The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. His work continues to have a profound impact on how we think about disease, behavior, liberty, justice, responsibility, and most important of all, what it means to be human. Szasz has shown us how the idea of mental illness is used by the state to deprive innocent people of freedom, and guilty persons of justice. Without the state involved, the medicalization of behavior means nothing.
He has shown us how the idea of mental illness functions as legal fiction within our legal system. In this sense, the idea of mental illness has been used much as the idea that African American slaves were considered three-fifths of a person. Persons labeled as mentally ill are now considered three-fifths of a person. It is as if there was a postscript at the bottom of the Bill of Rights that reads: “PS: For mentally healthy people only.”
The courts will not allow the idea of mental illness to be disproved, in much the same way that the idea that slaves could be three-fifths person was not allowed to be disproved. Today, mental illness as legal fiction maintains the institution of psychiatric slavery.