Thomas Szasz vs Albert Ellis: Is Mental Illness a Myth?

In a debate, recorded in 1977, Thomas Szasz and Albert Ellis argue over the concept of mental illness. Szasz argues forcefully and humorously for his position that mental illness is a sort of metaphor for problems in life. Albert Ellis maintains that mental illness is a useful concept that should not be dismissed.

Ellis and Szasz are giants in the field of psychology. Ellis started a therapeutic revolution away from the Freudian approach to a more philosophic approach based on Stoicism. Szasz maintained that there is no such thing as mental illness and that so-called mental illnesses are actually existential problems.

Some of the topics discussed are: Drug therapy, psychotherapy, values in psychiatry, racism in psychiatry, involuntary commitment, and how behavior becomes a “mental illness”.

One of the funniest clips from the video was when Szasz starts talking about primal scream therapy as religion.

Below we find out the type of help that Szasz recommends. He tells us, “the best therapy is the one that meets the existential human needs of the client”.

When it comes to involuntary commitment, we see the differences between the two men is more pronounced. Szasz absolutely opposes involuntary commitment, while Ellis maintains that it can be useful.

In the discussion on homosexuality, we find out how psychiatrists “decide” what a disease is.

I think a lot of people fail to understand Szasz. People often think Szasz is talking about mental illness in scientific terms. He is quick to point out, that he is not talking about science, he is talking about values.

When discussing racism, Szasz points out that he was the first to write about the ridiculous fake illness, Drapetomania. Drapetomania is the supposed illness that causes slaves to flee from their master. Psychiatrists also made up a related fake disease called Dynaesthesia aethiopica, which caused rascality and laziness in slaves!

Szasz talks about the hilarious idea that masturbation causes mental illness. For those unaware, this idea was taken seriously throughout the 19th century. You can hear through Ellis’ questioning that he totally misunderstands what Szasz means when he calls mental illness a myth. Ellis says, “it is true that the idea that masturbation causes mental illness was wrong, but does that prove that masturbation is a myth”?

Ellis fails to understand that Szasz is not saying that masturbation itself is a myth, but the idea that masturbation causes mental illness was idiotic on its face and shows how corrupt psychiatry is. As Szasz would say, psychiatry decides what causes illness, rather than discovering what causes illness.

Szasz and Ellis debating the merits of using psychotropic drugs. Szasz essentially says that drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist are fine if you like them, but are probably more harmful and less effective than alcohol.

Szasz says: “Chemotherapy is a fancy term for drinking martinis under medical auspices, except the martinis are much more poisonous, much less effective and much more expensive and Blue Cross pays for it.”

Szasz gives us one of his great aphorisms when discussing the types of mental illness. He says: “When you are upset, you are neurotic. When you upset others, you are severely mentally ill. In any case, you are always mentally ill.”

Towards the end of the debate, Szasz shows us his most exuberant self when he says: “You (Dr. Ellis) called the psychiatrists irrational, misguided, some other things. I don’t know why you don’t want to call them by the nice plain English word – bastards!”

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