Winner of the Fall 2017 Hooks contest:

Anna Grace Teal on “The Myth of Mental Illness”


Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy whom we can fight, exorcise, or dispel by ‘cure.’ What we do have are problems in living… (Thomas Szasz)

In a recent Friday Forum (9/29/17), Dr. Michael Fontaine, a scholar in classical studies, argued against a human’s capability to label another human as mentally ill. He used Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness as one of several works to convey his argument that psychiatrists cannot rigorously differentiate mental illness from everyday suffering. As an aspiring clinical psychologist, I would like to commend Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illnessfrom a different point of view, as Szasz’s work has me hooked as well as it hooked Dr. Michael Fontaine. Let me state my perspective first. Certainly, the biopsychosocial factors that exist have effects on individuals regardless of their extensive experience and training in a field of pertinent science such as psychology and psychiatry—effects that challenge anyone’s ability to objectively and rightfully label another person as “mentally ill.” Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness expands my point in that, to summarize his excerpt, because our ethical values may not be the same, behaviors that violate a norm in one place may not violate norms in another place, and furthermore, our remedies for what we call the “mentally ill” are not the same across cultures because of the variability of its norms. Let psychologists and psychiatrists be aware of this hooky essay—for it has merit in a continuously developing science pertaining to abnormal psychology! However, this essay not only hooks me for excellent points that expand my perspective as an aspiring clinical psychologist, but also hooks me because of its challenging implications for science as a whole. Science: “a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study, as obtained and tested through the scientific method” (Merriam Webster). Returning to Fontaine’s argument against the human capability to make objective claims of mental illness—now I wish to reclaim Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness for the necessity of psychology, a developing science. Szasz’s provocative last paragraph is this:

Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy whom we can fight, exorcise, or dispel by ‘cure.’ What we do have are problems in living –whether these be biologic, economic, political, or sociopsychological. In this essay I was concerned only with problems belonging in the last mentioned category and within this group mainly with those pertaining to moral values. The field to which modern psychiatry addresses itself is vast, and I made no effort to encompass it all. My argument was limited to the proposition that mental illness is a myth, whose function it is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations.

What then is the real implication of this work? Is it to abandon all measures we have of deviant behavior that is harmful and dysfunctional to a subject? I think not. I think the real implication of this work is the necessary use of science and its continuity in order to help people, regardless of the nomenclature of their suffering.


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