Caveat Emptor

(Let the Buyer Beware)

Thomas Szasz

Why do some people seek psychiatric help and find psychiatric harm? Whose fault is it? Although I consider psychiatry’s responsibility for misinforming people and mangling their lives self-evident, I also hold the victims partly responsible for their fate. Why? Because I believe it is every person's responsibility to inform himself, to the best of his ability, about the world he lives in. “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” warned James Madison, fourth President of the United States (1809-1817), “is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Madison's remarks about political self-government apply with even greater force to personal self-government, especially in a modern society in which the manipulation of information is of paramount importance. The less a person knows about the social institutions of his government, the more he must trust those who wield power over them. The more he trusts those who wield such power, the more vulnerable he makes himself to becoming their victim. In the case of "voluntary" commitment, both the psychiatric victimizer and his victim must share the blame - though not necessarily in equal proportion - for the injury the former inevitably inflicts on the latter. Unlike the typical victim of psychiatric despotism who comes to love his oppressor and believe in his goodness, a minority of people escape from psychiatric slavery, and shed their illusions about the benevolence of jailers and poisoners who masquerade as doctors.

The institution of psychiatry - epitomized by the practice of incarcerating persons innocent of crimes in buildings deceptively called “hospitals” - has always been dangerous to the welfare of its inmates. It had never been the purpose of psychiatry to help the inmates rendered powerless by psychiatric imprisonment. Psychiatry's aim has always been, and still is, to help a relatively powerful person - primarily the denominated patient's parent, spouse, or other relative - by disqualifying the less powerful kin whose behavior troubles him as “troubled”, which is to say mad, and by incarcerating the victim defined as a patient in a madhouse. While this has always been true, people today are more misinformed and more gullible about the true nature of psychiatry than ever. Accordingly, it is imperative that men, women, and children learn to protect themselves from the dangers of psychiatry. As adolescents must learn not to climb mountains during a thunderstorm, lest they be struck by lightening, they must also learn, when their lives are stormy, to avoid psychiatrists and stay away from mental hospitals.

People who have power are ipso facto dangerous to others. Because of the obvious connections between power and evil, only the corrupt seek power. Psychiatrists have a great deal of power. Because they are utterly corrupted by the pretense of helping the so-called patients while in fact acting as agents of social control on behalf of the patients' familial and social antagonists, it is imperative that potential consumers of psychiatric services be familiar not with what mental health professionals say, but with what they do.

I do not doubt that the desire to help is often genuine. The problem is that if the Other's affliction lies in his soul rather than in his body, then the urge to help him cannot be satisfied without establishing a bond of intimacy with him. Inevitably, the very attempt turns into a disaster, into an opportunity for existential cannibalism. I use this term to denote encounters officially defined as therapeutic that, in fact, consist of the malefactor de-meaning his maleficiary - by destroying the meaning that he, the nominal beneficiary, has given his own existence. There are many ways of practicing existential cannibalism. In our society, the most popular form is to give one's "beneficiary" a psychiatric diagnosis and impose on him a psychiatric treatment, neither of which he wants. This enables the "benefactor" to claim that he is helping and strengthening his beneficiary, while in fact he is harming him and rendering him more powerless.

We can and must oppose the mental health industry's massive campaign of disinformation, essential for maintaining the practice of cannibalism. For every patient psychiatrists claim to have helped, there are others who assert to have been harmed. Against every glamour story about the therapeutic powers of neuroleptic drugs, electroshock, and incarceration in insane asylums told by psychiatrists, psychiatric survivors can pit a horror story about the noxious powers of psychiatrists exercised by means of their deceptive vocabulary and pseudo-medical interventions.

Federal law now requires that cigarettes carry a warning label, cautioning the buyer about the risks he assumes if he uses the product. It is not a new idea. Dante depicted the entrance to Hell as emblazoned with the warning, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here." Not until the same warning is prominently displayed over the office door of every mental health professional who has not forsworn therapeutic coercion, and over the entrance to every mental hospital, will persons who seek psychiatric help be in a position to give informed consent to their social stigmatization and spiritual self-destruction.

This essay has been condensed and adapted with permission by the author from the Foreword to Madness, Heresy, and the Rumor of Angels, The Revolt Against the Mental Health System, by Seth Farber, Open Court, Chicago, 1993. The adaptation is by Mira de Vries, Chairman of MeTZelf. MeTZelf thanks Dr. Szasz for his kind permission to use his work.

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