Pioneer of psychiatric patient advocacy dies

 Thomas Szasz, a leading advocate of ‘patient power’ in psychiatry and critic of forced treatment and psychoactive medication, has died aged 92.

The author of The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) had a significant influence on mental health treatment in the UK, where his championing of psychiatric patients’ right to determine their own treatment pathway had many supporters.

While most psychiatrists did not accept his view that mental illness had no physical basis, Szasz was instrumental in developing a more flexible attitude towards diagnosis and treatment.

In addition, his promotion of community-based psychiatric care helped to influence the mental health strategies of recent decades.

Born in Hungary in 1920, Szasz migrated to the US in 1938. From 1956, he lectured in psychiatry at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.

As a practising psychiatrist, academic lecturer and writer, Szasz showed a lifelong concern with the dignity and freedom of the individual.

Pointing to the use of psychiatry as punishment in totalitarian societies, he argued that using forced treatment to resolve “problems in living” was a violation of patients’ rights.

According to his colleague Mantosh Dewan, Szasz forced the psychiatric profession to confront “the arbitrariness of psychiatric diagnoses” and helped to bring about the “de-institutionalisation” of many patients.

In 2010, Szasz gave a keynote address to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK – but the RCP’s American counterpart had not given him a platform in almost 50 years.