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Thomas Szasz as a Source of Inspiration

The personage who has been involved more than any other in exposing these quandaries is Thomas Szasz. With his keen scrutiny, rooted in a clear social-political conviction, he identified psychiatry’s quandaries conceptually as well as politically-strategically. Although at the time his views seemed to me to be extreme and highly controversial, I decided to explore his work more closely. A major part of his objection to psychiatry arises from his rejection of the coercion it entails, and the manner in which that coercion is justified. I found much truth in Szasz’s writings. I often did not understood very well the furious but ill-founded manner in which his critics reacted to him, or I found their arguments not very convincing. Although Szasz appeared to be less interested than I in a psychiatry dedicated to helping people voluntarily, he never opposed it. His main focus was and is the coercion and abuse of power he saw and sees in institutional psychiatry. To a certain point I shared his revulsion of the social power and repressiveness which could and still can emanate from psychiatry.

Conferring with my sponsor, Professor W.K. van Dijk,* I decided to write a thesis about Szasz’s oeuvre. In the framework of this project I visited Szasz in June of 1982, together with my companion, friend, and colleague, psychiatrist Leo van Dijk. During an entire week we enjoyed the opportunity of discussing with Szasz a myriad of questions which his work had raised in our minds. He was a wonderful host. He stood squarely behind his writings, and was very much willing to expound on anything we asked. My dissertation appeared in May of 1984 in the Dutch language with the title “Myth and Power, Thomas Szasz’s Critical Psychiatry.” The responses in the Netherlands were mainly cautious-friendly, although the book was also fiercely attacked several times, among others by the Head Inspector of the Mental Health Service of the time  during a symposium dedicated to the new Dutch commitment laws.

*Today a large foundation in the north of the country dedicated to drug abuse issues is named after him. – J.P.
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