Saturday, July 09, 2005

Cruising Szasz by Jeffrey A. Schaler

Cruising Szasz
Jeffrey A. Schaler

Actor Tom Cruise created quite a stir on June 25 when he called psychiatry a “pseudoscience,” asserted a chemical basis for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder doesn’t exist, and said that anti-depressant drugs masked problems-in-living. He used the actress Brooke Shields as a case in point, citing her postpartum depression, engendering a fair amount of hostility from those who disagreed with him, including Ms. Shields. The New York Times published her rejoinder on July 1. Cruise was criticized by psychiatric apologists and sycophants as irresponsible and dangerous for speaking his mind – and the truth.

A lot of people seem to have misunderstood what Tom Cruise said. It is not necessarily the case that he’s a Scientology-brainwashed wacko, or that his ideas about psychiatry even came from the Church of Scientology. Cruise learned a lot about psychiatry from the writings of psychiatric abolitionist Thomas Szasz. Throughout the world, Szasz is considered an intellectual heavyweight, someone whose ideas about medicine, disease, science, liberty and responsibility should be taken seriously.

Cruise has read a lot of Szasz’s writings and he admires Szasz a great deal. (See a photograph taken last year of Szasz with his arm around Cruise at His words echo Szaszian ideas. Szasz has upset many psychiatrists over the years because he is a member of the psychiatry and psychoanalysis clubs criticizing its own. In real science this is expected to occur in order to advance scientific knowledge—theories must be falsifiable. In pseudoscience, such criticism is forbidden.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA), responding to Cruise’s comments on NBC’s Today Show, asserts in a press release dated June 27 that “science has proven that mental illnesses are real medical conditions . . . and that it is unfortunate that a small number of individuals and groups persist in questioning its [mental health’s] legitimacy.”

Is this claim by the APA actually true, or is it political rhetoric? Why would the APA be upset with someone who questions its legitimacy, disagrees with its ideas, explanations, and policy recommendations regarding “mental illness?”

Actress Brooke Shields is understandably upset. She responded to Cruise claiming she has a disease caused by changing levels of estrogen and progesterone during and after pregnancy. This disease allegedly kept her from being the “loving parent . . . [she] is today.” It is difficult to argue with someone who uses her own experience to prove that something is scientifically correct. If one shows how she is wrong, one can easily be accused of lacking compassion. Compassion has nothing to do with the truth. Critics of psychiatry are frequently accused of lacking compassion. I fail to see how depriving an innocent person of liberty, forcing a person to take drugs she doesn’t want to take, and shocking her brain with electricity against her will—all done in the name of treating mental illness—are indications of compassion.

What of the substance of Cruise’s arguments? The truth is science has never proven that mental illnesses are “real” medical conditions, anymore than it proved homosexuality is a disease. (Homosexuality was declassified as a disease by the APA in 1973, largely due to the writings of Thomas Szasz.) The truth is standard textbooks on pathology do not list mental illnesses among real diseases like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and syphilis. Why? Because only the body can be sick, not behavior.

Certainly people exhibit irrational, socially unacceptable and abnormal behavior for all sorts of reasons. But it is wrong to call behaviors diseases. Diseases refer to physical lesions, wounds of the body, not behaviors, conduct, or deportment.

In other words, Cruise is right. The truth is there is no evidence to support the idea that anti-depressant drugs cure or restore chemical imbalances, even though they may certainly help people to feel better about themselves. Szasz pointed this out years ago. These drugs influence chemicals in the body, but then everything we do is accompanied by chemical and electrical changes in the body. This is simply not the same as saying the changes in our body make us do this or that. We cannot tell who is depressed by drawing blood, studying fluid balances, or looking at pictures of the structure and function of the brain. There is no such thing as asymptomatic “mental illness”—yet there most certainly is when it comes to real diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Szasz is best known for his insistence that “mental illness” is a metaphor, and that we go astray if we take the metaphor literally. Yet belief in mental illness is not his main target. In Szasz’s view, individuals should be free to devote themselves to any variety of psychiatric belief and practice. What Szasz objects to is forcing people to see (or not see) a psychiatrist, to reside or not reside in a mental hospital, to partake (or not partake) of drugs, and to believe (or not believe) in any specific set of ideas. Cruise, again echoing Szasz, rightly objected to the involuntary administration of psychiatric “treatments.”

One way people try to discredit both Szasz and Cruise is by playing the Scientology-is-a-cult card. Today, it is as fashionable to criticize Scientologists and Scientology as it was to criticize Jews and Judaism in 1930s and 1940s Germany. Scientology is recognized by our federal government as a religion and demands the same respect and tolerance we show any other religion. Instead of asking why Scientology endorses Thomas Szasz’s ideas, we should be asking why other religions do not.

The rule of cults is “thou shalt not disagree.” Break the rule and you break the spell. Cruise broke a rule: Thou shalt not criticize psychiatry. Some say psychiatry is a cult. What is most upsetting to those in the psychiatry cult? That someone who attracts a lot of attention should dare to point out that the emperor called psychiatry has no clothes. That is exactly what Mr. Cruise has done. In so doing, his head sticks out above the crowd, to be sure, speaking truth to power, but largely because he is standing on the shoulders of Thomas Szasz.

[Cf. The enemy of my enemy is my friend at ]

Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D., a psychologist, is a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book is Szasz Under Fire: The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics (Open Court, Chicago, 2004). He is the owner and producer of and his website is


At 8:01 AM, Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Excellent, Jeff!

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Lee Killough said...

Hear hear!!!


Post a Comment

<< Home