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Commentary on Szasz
  1. G Adshead
  1. Department of Forensic Psychotherapy, Richard Dadd Centre, Broadmoor Hospital, Crowthorne, Berks RG45 7EG;

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    Szasz argues that the threat of harm to self or others cannot be understood as a symptom of mental illness, and that there is an irresolvable tension between the traditional medical ethical duty to heal, and any notion of a medical duty to protect the public.1 I think these are two distinct arguments which could each be the subject of extended analysis, and this commentary is of necessity limited.

    Professor Szasz has consistently raised concerns about the political abuse of psychiatry as a way of controlling dissidence. Many of his arguments remain as cogent and unanswered as when they were first put 30 years ago. But as sympathetic as I am to some of his criticisms, it seems to me that many are too sweeping; especially the first claim that there is no such thing as mental illness, but only persons whose expressed intentions involve taking a stance which is contrary to certain social rules.

    I do not propose here to discuss the so called “hard” problem of consciousness—that is, exactly how brain states give rise to intentional psychological experience, or indeed, the extent to which “brain” and “mental” can be used synonymously. If we accept that mental states give rise to intentions, then different mental states will give rise to different intentions, and there is no reason not to think that there might be abnormal mental states that might give rise to abnormal intentions. The question then is what we mean by the word “abnormal”. Clearly it is possible for abnormal to be defined as “socially inappropriate”, which is Szasz’s concern. In that case, political and social dissidence is then turned into a symptom by the language of medicine, and thus becomes not a social matter, but an individual’s personal problem.

    But “abnormal” could be defined with reference …

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