Is the antipsychiatry movement helping us?

From abuses in asylums to horrific “experiments” in Nazi Germany, the antipsychiatry movement arose in response to what were seen as abuses within the mainstream psychiatric establishment.  Yet has the movement actually brought about any sort of positive change for those people living with mental illness?  Or has it generated more of an academic debate that’s had a minimal impact on the people served by the mental health system?

The term anti-psychiatry appears to have been coined by German doctor Bernhard Beyer in 1912, and gained popularity in 1967 with its use by psychiatrist David Cooper.  Psychiatrist R.D. Lang was another vocal critic of psychiatry, although he eventually rejected the antipsychiatry label.  He argued that psychosis was not a medical illness but an understandable response to injuries inflicted by schizophrenogenic parents.  Well-known philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault argued that psychiatry, whether inpatient or outpatient, was used primarily for social control.  Sociologist Erving Goffman, who did pioneering work on stigma, argued that asylums were “total institutions” that controlled and oppressed those within them.

The role of Thomas Szasz

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was a prominent critic of mainstream psychiatry, although he did not identify as being part of the antipsychiatry movement.  In his 1961 book Myth of Mental Illness, he argued that what was referred to as “mental illness” was not actually a biological disease but rather a pattern of behaviour that was viewed by society as problematic.  He accused mental hospitals of being more like prisons than hospitals.

Szasz was particularly focused on the role of coercion in psychiatry, likening coerced psychiatric relationships to slavery and rape.  He also argued that “suicide prevention is a euphemism for psychiatric coercion.”  He added that “To the psychiatrically enlightened, anything connected with death is now a symptom of mental illness.” In The Myth of Mental Illness: 50 Years Later, he wrote that “Today, the role of the physician as curer of the soul is uncontested.  There are no more bad people in the world, there are only mentally ill people.”

In the book The Therapeutic State, he argued that mental illness was a myth and society viewed psychiatry as useful because it removed unwanted persons from the social milieu.  He wrote that Nazi Germany implemented a “therapeutic state”, and psychiatry provided “scientific” justification for mass murder.  He wrote that although this was later dismissed as an “abuse of psychiatry”, Nazi and American health ideology actually closely resembled one another, as they were both based on the premise that “the individual is incompetent to protect himself from himself and needs the protection of the paternalistic state”.

Not only did Szasz not identify as being antipsychiatry, he was openly critical of the movement.  In the book Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared, he wrote that the individuals associated with the antipsychiatry movement had joined forces with the “therapeutic state” instead of rejecting it, and the movement left an “accursed legacy” of silencing serious criticism of the field of psychiatry.

In Debunking Antipsychiatry: Laing, Law, and Largactil, Szasz expressed his belief that the antipsychiatry movement had actually undermined his own cause.  He was openly critical of others who took an antipsychiatry stance.  He accused Laing of “psychiatric gobbledygook” and “charlatanry”, and called Cooper, Laing, and Foucault “power-hungry left-wing statists who were interested in taking over psychiatry.”

The Church of Scientology

In 1969 the Church of Scientology established a Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which was co-founded by Thomas Szasz.  According to its website, the group  “works to expose psychiatric violations of human rights and clean up the field of mental healing.”   It accuses the field of psychiatry of “wholesale drugging of children for obscene profits”.  The group has established a museum called Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.

In a 1969 article, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard claimed that psychiatrists did not actually have any idea how the mind actually worked, and he accused them of hypnotizing politicians.  He wrote that: “There is not one institutional psychiatrist alive who, by ordinary criminal law, could not be arraigned and convicted of extortion, mayhem and murder.”  Chillingly, he went so far as to urge that:  “We want at least one bad mark on every psychiatrist in England, a murder, an assault, or a rape or more than one.”

Modern antipsychiatry groups

Aside from Scientology, various organized groups have advocated against psychiatry.  One,, specifies that it wants no affiliation with Scientology, and members of the Church of Scientology are not permitted to become members of their organization.  MindFreedom‘s stated goal is “a nonviolent revolution in mental health care”, and they oppose “coerced, forced, and fraudulent medical procedures”.

There are also a number of ex-patient groups identifying themselves as psychiatric survivors, including the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry.  The ex-patient organization National Empowerment Center deliberately distances itself from the antipsychiatry movement, describing it as “largely an intellectual exercise of academics and dissident mental health professionals”.

The University of Toronto in Canada has a scholarship in antipsychiatry that was established in 2016 by U of T professor Bonnie Burstow to promote antipsychiatry inquiry.  The U of T website states that Burstow’s research group is the “largest single group of antipsychiatry scholars anywhere in North America.”

Criticism of the antipsychiatry movement

Controversy persists, and perhaps unsurprisingly the Wikipedia pages on anti-psychiatry as well as Scientology and psychiatry have multiple flags for such issues as disputed neutrality, limited worldview, and lack of solid references.

In a pro-psychiatry editorial for Current Psychiatry, Dr. Henry Nasrallah writes that “the original ‘sin’ of psychiatry appears to be locking up and ‘abusing’ mentally ill patients in asylums”.  He puts forth lobotomies and labelling homosexuality as a mental disorder as examples of the “perceived misdeeds of psychiatry”.  He comments that the anti-psychiatry movement is seen by some as “intellectual halitosis”.  This sort of stance minimizing the abusive practices that have been carried out under the guise of psychiatry seems unlikely to provide a strong counterpoint to antipsychiatry rhetoric.


My biggest question is whether the antipsychiatry movement has brought about any sort of positive change for those of us with mental illness.  If so, I’m not seeing it.  Are there problems within the field of psychiatry?  Absolutely, but those issues are likely best addressed by narrowing the divide between patient and professional, us and them.  The antipsychiatry movement’s polarizing approach is more likely to shut down dialogue rather than promote it, and this extremist stance actually makes it less likely that the psychiatric establishment will listen to the voices of people dealing with mental illness every day.

Perhaps the most important way to challenge abuses of power that exist within the mental health system is to use our voices.  The internet age offers unprecedented opportunities to speak up, and in doing so we are more likely to affect positive change than by trying to fundamentally undercut the very notion of psychiatry and mental illness.




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22 thoughts on “Is the antipsychiatry movement helping us?

  1. Luftmentsch says:

    It’s also worth noting that most of the major anti-psychiatric theorists had strong anti-establishment political views. Szasz was libertarian; Laing, Foucault and others were Marxists. They wanted to alter society as a whole, not just psychiatric care.

    That said, I think they may have had a valid point that mental illness is a reaction to social/political factors as much as personal ones, although that’s not the same as saying there is no such thing as mental illness or that mental illness is society’s “fault.”

    • ashleyleia says:

      Oh interesting. I’d read that David Cooper was a Marxist, but I wasn’t aware of the others.
      I think I would tend to lean more towards our interpretation of mental illness being socially constructed rather than necessarily a causative relationship.

    • marandarussell says:

      I like some libertarian ideas, but I don’t like their attitude towards society taking care of its poorest, weakest, and sickest. This attitude of “everyone can fend for themselves, no one needs to help take care of each other”. I find it very selfish. You would think Marxists would be in favor of taking care of the mentally ill though, at least in theory.

  2. Melanie B Cee says:

    Interesting read. And yeah, psychiatry has its problems and there have been those, through history, who did awful things in the name of ‘science’. Today I think personally (at least in the USA) that psychiatry is a good thing and more evolved than ever before. I recommend therapy to people I meet who might benefit from it and because of the stigma of past bad acts/deeds (like the homosexuality is a mental disorder or the water bath treatment or lobotomies) some of those people wouldn’t go near a mental health clinic or provider. Old sins cast long shadows. Personally? I’m sort of glad for those trial and error days. And there’s always going to be someone who has more to say than wisdom to back it up.

  3. marandarussell says:

    Antipsychiatry is not good. It is just an excuse to push off any society responsibility to help those with mental illness. Yes, there have been abuses by asylums and psychiatric hospitals and those things need to be watched closely and patient rights need to be monitored and protected, but I’m sure many of the homeless mentally ill would love to have a place to go if it wasn’t an abusive or scary environment. I would much rather be institutionalized myself if it came down to that rather than left on the streets.

    • ashleyleia says:

      Yes it accomplishes nothing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and try to get rid of the psychiatric treatments that are helping a lot of people.

  4. stoner on a rollercoaster says:

    Whatever happened to balance, reasoning and research. Why everything has to turn into a war?
    Your research is commendable.
    I talked to my father today who is bipolar. Anyone who doesnt believe in resistance of mental illnesses probably never had experience with one. But doesnt mean rest of the world is faking it.

    He went manic this year after we lost our mother to cancer. He is blessed to have an amazing doctor and support. But he still questions how did this even happen.

    He is on medication and therapy or he wouldnt be with us. We have lost an uncle to suicide. I don’t know what else world need to witness to understand gravity of this problem. It’s right there in our faces.

    • ashleyleia says:

      Absolutely. It’s clearly a problem, and there are a lot of people who desperately need treatment. What we need is more and better treatment available, not psychiatry-bashing.

      • stoner on a rollercoaster says:

        Exactly! My father us one of the luckiest people to have an actually caring doctor. When he went manic everything went out of control and since nobody had even seen anything like that it was hard to comprehend. Thankfully my siblings have studied medicine they literally initiated treatment the same day.

        I know what it does to people and families that’s why I started mental health awareness project.

        It’s illness. It’s real and needs treatment and support like any other illness. Period!

  5. Free Thoughts says:

    The person most closely tied to antipsychiatry, Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (1927-1989), made use of psychiatric coercion even in his own family. In 1976, Laing’s daughter Fiona, then twenty-four years old, was rejected by her boyfriend. According to John Clay, Laing’s biographer: She had “cracked up,” and had been found weeping outside a church near the family home [and was committed to a local mental hospital.] He [Adrian Laing] rang his father up and asked him “in despair and anger” what he was going to do about it. Laing reassured him that he would visit Fiona and “do everything in his power” to ensure that she was not given ECT, but when it came to the crunch, as Adrian Laing relates, all he could say was “Well, Ruskin Place [the family home] or Gartnavel [the state mental hospital where Laing received his psychiatric training] —what’s the difference?(a) Fiona was given ECT. -Thomas Szasz On antipsychiatry

  6. Meg says:

    My dad is friends with a child psychiatrist who I’ve seen a few times over the years, mainly because he knows this woman, even though I’m not a child. She has this attitude of wanting me (and all her patients) to go off my drugs so she can get a baseline of my “normal.” Even the thought of it now is chilling in what would happen if I were to go that route. Perhaps she worries that mentally ill people are given drugs they don’t ultimately need…? But for the most part, I can list exactly what each drug does for me.

    I’ve also been involved with cults (not unlike Scientology) who believed that taking drugs “weakens the will” and is likened to “kids popping candy in their mouths to be happy again instead of working through their problems.” I’m proud to say, though, that that cult (I checked recently) is no longer here in my city. I think I may have successfully run them out of town. (Don’t mess with Meg.) The depths of high-horse ignorance are depraved and horrific to those of us who need meds. Their attitude gives me two choices: 1) to go off my meds (holy shit, no), or 2) to sit around and hate myself for being weak. (Of course, Meg chose option three and ran them out of town.)

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