The Myth of Mental Illness

This is the title of a book by Thomas Szasz that was published in 1972. Anyone who is puzzled by psychology and psychotherapy must read this. It is clearly written and the best on the subject.

Do you know what oxymorons are? You might think they are a variety of dinosaur, or some kind of idiot. No. They are two words put together that don’t belong to each other because they don’t make any sense. There are many oxymorons in the field of psychiatry. Here are two examples: ‘mental illness’ and ’emotional intelligence’.

All illnesses are caused by malfunctions of a part of the human body. So what is mental illness? It used to be called ‘madness’. Everyone knows what we mean by that: someone whose behaviour is so different from everyone elses that they become a danger to themselves and others. No-one knew what to do with them. By treating it as an illness that can be healed by calling it a ‘mental illness’ psychiatry thinks it can be cured. They are wrong.

The brain is an organ that affects everything that happens in the body, but the mind is not. No-one knows what it is. It has puzzled philosophers and writers since they first thought about it and we are no closer to an answer. The idea that we have a soul that is eternal arose out of philosophical attempts to categorise the mind. Two of our greatest philosophers, Descartes and Spinoza thought on those lines.

If we do not know what a mind is and where it is, how could it be sick? Therefore we should rid ourselves of this phrase ‘mental illness’ because it is meaningless and misleads people to hope for a ‘cure’.

The second oxymoron, ’emotional intelligence’ was the title of a book by Daniel Goleman launched in 1995. It immediately became a best seller in America and England. He introduced the idea of an EQ as a companion for IQ. It is easy to see how people loved the idea. All those people who wanted to know how intelligent they were but didn’t pass the test, welcomed a different kind of test for using the emotions in a helpful way.

Remember both these tests were devised by people from the limitations of their own research and thinking. They are ideas, not facts. Why? Because we do not have enough information, and we will probably never have enough knowledge to estimate just how well we are capable of managing our emotions and thoughts.

Emotions and the intelligence that is generated by the brain are two completely different things.

However, because they are different, it is not impossible for them to work together. To do that we have to carry out the most difficult task: to get to know our conscious and unconscious selves and that is the real purpose of psychotherapy. We can get guidance from a professional, but, as in every profession, it is essential that we find the right kind of specialist we feel we can trust.