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January 14, 2007

Coercion As Cure: A Critical History Of Psychiatry

This article is based on a recent message by Vince Boehm who sends out alerts, useful news items, and comment to a group of mental health professionals, decision makers and activists.

Vince sends out two essays on the nature of psychiatry as practiced today. The first is by eminent psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York.   It is titled, COERCION AS CURE: A CRITICAL HISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY, the title of his upcoming book.


Image: "Psychiatry destroys the mind - electroshock: pain and betrayal as therapy" (in German)

The second is by Leonard Roy Frank, commenting on the Szasz essay. Frank is the editor of Random House Webster's Quotationary (20,000 quotes arranged in 1,000 alphabetized categories. His Webster's Wit & Humor Quotationary and his Freedom: Quotes and Passages from the World’s Greatest Freethinkers and 5 gift books titled Inspiration, Love, Money, Wisdom, and Wit, were published by Random House as well.

Leonard is a shock survivor and activist. His Electroshock Quotationary, an illustrated, 154-page collection of chronologically arranged quotations, excerpts, and short essays about the history and nature of the controversial psychiatric procedure known as electroshock (electroconvulsive treatment, ECT) may be downloaded free of charge at

- - -

Thomas Szasz, the anti-psychiatry psychiatrist, has written an exceptional piece. Among other things, he makes a very important point about psychiatric treatment: Great confusion results from our failure to distinguish between voluntary treatment and society-mandated coercive intervention. While there is nothing wrong with a person deciding to get any treatment they believe will help them, there is great harm in forcibly subjecting a person to drugs, shock or other treatment against their consent.

Mental disease is fictitious disease. Psychiatric diagnosis is disguised disdain. Psychiatric treatment is coercion concealed as care, typically carried out in prisons called “hospitals.” Formerly, the social function of psychiatry was more apparent than it is now. The asylum inmate was incarcerated against his will. Insanity was synonymous with unfitness for liberty. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new type of psychiatric relationship entered the medical scene: persons experiencing so-called “nervous symptoms” began to seek medical help, typically from the family physician or a specialist in “nervous disorders.” This led psychiatrists to distinguish between two kinds of mental diseases, neuroses and psychoses: Persons who complained of their own behavior were classified as neurotic, whereas persons about whose behavior others complained were classified as psychotic. The legal, medical, psychiatric, and social denial of this simple distinction and its far-reaching implications undergirds the house of cards that is modern psychiatry.

Of course the principle that each person should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to accept medical intervention or not is valid in much wider fields than psychiatry. Talking about abortion and euthanasia today, I realized that even with such controversial topics, the right to personal self-determination provides a key for finding our way out of these most difficult moral quandaries.

Here are Szasz and Frank on psychiatry:

- - -


By Thomas Szasz

(found on Ilana Mercer's Barely A Blog)

All modern history, as learnt and taught and accepted, is purely conventional. For sufficient reasons, all persons in authority combined, by a happy union of deceit and concealment, to promote falsehood.

Lord Acton (1834 - 1902)


For more than a century, leading psychiatrists have maintained that psychiatry is hard to define because its scope is so broad. In 1886, Emil Kraepelin, considered the greatest psychiatrist of his age, declared: “Our science has not arrived at a consensus on even its most fundamental principles, let alone on appropriate ends or even on the means to those ends.”

Contrary to such assertions, I maintain that it is easy to define psychiatry. The problem is that defining it truthfully — acknowledging its self-evident ends and the means used to achieve them — is socially unacceptable and professionally suicidal. Psychiatric tradition, social expectation, and the law — both criminal and civil — identify coercion as the profession’s determining characteristic. Accordingly, I regard psychiatry as the theory and practice of coercion, rationalized as the diagnosis of mental illness and justified as medical treatment aimed at protecting the patient from himself and society from the patient. The history of psychiatry I present thus resembles, say, a critical history of missionary Christianity.

The heathen savage does not suffer from lack of insight into the divinity of Jesus, does not lack theological help, and does not seek the services of missionaries. Just so, the psychotic does not suffer from lack of insight into being mentally ill, does not lack psychiatric treatment, and does not seek the services of psychiatrists. This is why the missionary tends to have contempt for the heathen, why the psychiatrist tends to have contempt for the psychotic, and why both conceal their true sentiments behind a facade of caring and compassion. Each meddler believes that he is in possession of the “truth,” each harbors a passionate desire to improve the Other, each feels a deep sense of entitlement to intrude into the life of the Other, and each bitterly resents those who dismiss his precious insights and benevolent interventions as worthless and harmful.

Non-acknowledgment of the fact that coercion is a characteristic and potentially ever-present element of so-called psychiatric treatments is intrinsic to the standard dictionary definitions of psychiatry. The Unabridged Webster’s defines psychiatry as “A branch of medicine that deals with the science and practice of treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.”

Plainly, voluntary psychiatric relations differ from involuntary psychiatric interventions the same way as, say, sexual relations between consenting adults differ from the sexual assaults we call “rape.” Sometimes, to be sure, psychiatrists deal with voluntary patients. As I explain and illustrate throughout this volume, it is necessary, however, not merely to distinguish between coerced and consensual psychiatric relations, but to contrast them. The term “psychiatry” ought to be applied to one or the other, but not both. As long as psychiatrists and society refuse to recognize this, there can be no real psychiatric historiography.

The writings of historians, physicians, journalists, and others addressing the history of psychiatry rest on three erroneous premises: that so-called mental diseases exist, that they are diseases of the brain, and that the incarceration of “dangerous” mental patients is medically rational and morally just. The problems so created are then compounded by failure — purposeful or inadvertent — to distinguish between two radically different kinds of psychiatric practices, consensual and coerced, voluntarily sought and forcibly imposed.

In free societies, ordinary social relations between adults are consensual. Such relations — in business, medicine, religion, and psychiatry — pose no special legal or political problems. By contrast, coercive relations — one person authorized by the state to forcibly compel another person to do or abstain from actions of his choice — are inherently political in nature and are always morally problematic.

Mental disease is fictitious disease. Psychiatric diagnosis is disguised disdain. Psychiatric treatment is coercion concealed as care, typically carried out in prisons called “hospitals.” Formerly, the social function of psychiatry was more apparent than it is now. The asylum inmate was incarcerated against his will. Insanity was synonymous with unfitness for liberty. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new type of psychiatric relationship entered the medical scene: persons experiencing so-called “nervous symptoms” began to seek medical help, typically from the family physician or a specialist in “nervous disorders.” This led psychiatrists to distinguish between two kinds of mental diseases, neuroses and psychoses: Persons who complained of their own behavior were classified as neurotic, whereas persons about whose behavior others complained were classified as psychotic. The legal, medical, psychiatric, and social denial of this simple distinction and its far-reaching implications undergirds the house of cards that is modern psychiatry.

The American Psychiatric Association, founded in 1844, was first called the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. In 1892, it was renamed the American Medico-Psychological Association, and in 1921, the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In its first official resolution, the Association declared: “Resolved, that it is the unanimous sense of this convention that the attempt to abandon entirely the use of all means of personal restraint is not sanctioned by the true interests of the insane.” The APA has never rejected its commitment to the twin claims that insanity is a medical illness and that coercion is care and cure. In 2005, Steven S. Sharfstein, president of the APA, reiterated his and his profession’s commitment to coercion. Lamenting “our [the psychiatrists’] reluctance to use caring, coercive approaches,” he declared: ” A person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with a history of multiple rehospitalizations for dangerousness and a reluctance to abide by outpatient treatment, including medications, is a perfect example of someone who would benefit from these [forcibly imposed] approaches. We must balance individual rights and freedom with policies aimed at caring coercion.” Seven months later, Sharfstein conveniently forgot having recently bracketed caring and coercion into a single act, “caring coercion.” Defending “assisted treatment” – a euphemism for psychiatric coercion – he stated: “In assisted treatment, such as Kendra’s Law in New York, psychiatrists’ primary role is to foster patient improvement and help restore the patient to health.” 

Psychiatry and society face a paradox. The more progress scientific psychiatry is said to make, the more intolerable becomes the idea that mental illness is a myth and that the effort to treat it a will-o’-the-wisp. The more progress scientific medicine actually makes, the more undeniable it becomes that “chemical imbalances” and “hard wiring” are fashionable clichés, not evidence that problems in living are medical diseases justifiably “treated” without patient consent. And the more often psychiatrists play the roles of juries, judges, and prison guards, the more uncomfortable they feel about being in fact pseudomedical coercers — society’s well-paid patsies. The whole conundrum is too horrible to face. Better to continue calling unwanted behaviors “diseases” and disturbing persons “sick,” and compel them to submit to psychiatric “care.” It is easy to see, then, why the right-thinking person considers it inconceivable that there might be no such thing as mental health or mental illness. Where would that leave the history of psychiatry portrayed as the drama of heroic physicians combating horrible diseases?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is right: “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”

Scientific discourse is predicated on intellectual honesty. Psychiatric discourse rests on intellectual dishonesty. The psychiatrist’s basic social mandate is the coercive-paternalistic protection of the mental patient from himself and the public from the mental patient. Yet, in the professional literature as well as the popular media, this is the least noted feature of psychiatry as a medical specialty. Pointing it out is considered to be in bad taste. It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which historians of psychiatry as well as mental health professionals and journalists ignore, deny, and rationalize the involuntary, coerced, forcibly imposed nature of psychiatric treatments. This denial is rooted in language. Psychiatrists, lawyers, journalists, and medical ethicists routinely call incarceration in a psychiatric prison “hospitalization,” and torture forcibly imposed on the inmate “treatment.” Resting their reasoning on the same faulty premises, psychiatric historians trace alleged advances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses to “progress in neuroscience.” In contrast, I focus on what psychiatrists have done to persons who have rejected their “help” and on how they have rationalized their “therapeutic” violations of the dignity and liberty of their ostensible beneficiaries.

I regard consensual human relations, however misguided by either or both parties, as radically different, morally as well as politically, from human relations in which one party, empowered by the state, deprives another of liberty. The history of medicine, no less than the history of psychiatry, abounds in interventions by physicians that have harmed rather than helped their patients. Bloodletting is the most obvious example. Nevertheless, physicians have, at least until now, abstained from using state-sanctioned force to systematically impose injurious treatments on medically ill people. Misguided by fashion and lack of knowledge, sick people have often sought and willingly submitted to such interventions. In contrast, the history of psychiatry is, au fond, the story of the forcible imposition of injurious “medical” interventions on persons called “mental patients.”

In short, where psychiatric historians see stories about terrible illnesses and heroic treatments, I see stories about people marching to the beats of different drummers or perhaps failing to march at all, and terrible injustices committed against them, rationalized by hollow “therapeutic” justifications. Faced with vexing personal problems, the “truth” people crave is a simple, fashionable falsehood. That is an important, albeit bitter, lesson the history of psychiatry teaches us.

One of the melancholy truths of the story I have set out to tell is that, stripped of its pseudomedical ornamentation, it is not a particularly interesting tale. To make it interesting, I have tried to do what, according to Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the “greatest poet “does: He “drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet … He says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you.” To this end, I have, where possible, cited the exact words psychiatrists have used to justify their stubborn insistence, over a period of nearly three centuries, that psychiatric coercion is medical care.

- - -

By Leonard Roy Frank


   Leonard Frank    

Thank you, Ilana Mercer, for performing a valuable public service by publishing Thomas Szasz’s extraordinary essay, “Coercion as Cure”! For 50 years now Dr. Szasz has courageously challenged the ideology and practice of coercive psychiatry. In the revised edition (1974) of his landmark work “The Myth of Mental Illness” (1961), he stated some of the major principles underlying his critique. They are worth repeating here:

- “Disease or illness can affect only the body; hence, there can be no mental illness.

- ‘Mental illness’ is a metaphor. Minds can be ‘sick’ only in the sense that jokes are ‘sick’ or economics are ‘sick.’

- Psychiatric diagnoses are stigmatizing labels, phrased to resemble medical diagnoses and applied to persons whose behavior annoys or offends others….

- If there is no mental illness there can be no hospitalization, treatment, or cure for it….

The introduction of psychiatric considerations into the administration of the criminal law — for example, the insanity plea and verdict, diagnoses of mental incompetence to stand trial, and so forth — corrupt the law and victimize the subject on whose behalf they are ostensibly employed….

There is no medical, moral, or legal justification for involuntary psychiatric interventions. They are crimes against humanity.”

That the psychiatric profession and society at large have mostly ignored Dr. Szasz’s critique helps explain the deplorable state of the current “mental health system.” More and more people are being labeled with psychiatric “diseases” as more and more diagnoses are being conjured up. Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), the “father of modern psychiatry,” had only four categories of what was then called “insanity,” but in 1952 the American Psychiatric Association described about 106 “mental illness” categories in its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,” and its 4th edition published in 1994 had 374 such categories.

As was true on a smaller scale in Pinel’s time, psychiatric violence, coercion and deception are today standard operating procedures: e.g., “mental patients” who refuse psychiatry’s powerful drugs, called “medications,” are held down and forcibly injected. These drugs, especially in large doses, are frightening in their effect but the bottom line is that sooner or later they make the individual feel mentally, emotionally and physically wasted. Moreover, the longer the drugs are taken, the more likely they are to cause permanent brain damage and other, sometimes life-threatening and life-shortening, medical problems. And even when consented to, the consent is likely to be fraudulent because psychiatrists seldom supply accurate and full information about the risks involved in taking these drugs.

In addition to the many millions of adults being subjected to this kind of abuse, psychiatrists and other physicians, in a practice almost unheard of a generation ago, are “prescribing” a variety of psychiatric drugs to an estimated 5-10 million children and adolescents. The drugs will cause many of these youngsters to become habitual psychiatric- and street-drug users and eventually “chronic mental patients.”

There has also been a resurgence in the use of electroshock (electroconvulsive treatment, ECT). Since 1940 more than 6 million people in this country alone have undergone this brainwashing, brain-damaging, and memory-destroying procedure. Even today, more than 100,000 Americans are being electroshocked every year.

Coercive psychiatry may be defined as the use of psychiatric methods by means of outright force and intimidation or in the absence of genuine informed consent to “treat” non-existent “diseases,” diseases for which there are no proven physical markers.

There is no way to calculate the amount of suffering coercive psychiatry has caused and continues to cause those individuals directly affected. Nor is there any way to assess the degree to which coercive psychiatry has undermined and continues to undermine the values and moral standing of every society in which it operates.

In “The Second Sin” (1973), Dr. Szasz anticipated the coming of “the Therapeutic State” in which “the principal requirement for the position of Big Brother may be an M.D. degree.” In such a state, the prevailing creed of “therapeutism” will justify “proclaiming undying love for those we hate, and inflicting merciless punishment on them in the name of treating them for diseases whose principal symptoms are their refusal to submit to our domination.”

Two questions need to be asked:

1) How close are we to “the Therapeutic State” which would necessarily result in the loss of our freedom, and
2) What are we, the people, going to do to prevent its establishment?

—Leonard Roy Frank, Editor, The Random House Webster’s Quotationary

- - -

See also:

Coercion as Cure on Google Books

Coalition for the Abolition of Electroshock

International Campaign to Ban Electroshock

"Electroshock" - Links to articles on MindFreedom

An Interview with Ben Hansen: The Drugging of America
Founder and president of the wickedly satirical Bonkers Institute for Nearly Genuine Research, Ben Hansen is an independent investigator, writer and activist in Traverse City, Michigan seriously alarmed by the over-diagnosis of mental disorders and the widespread use of psychiatric drugs in our society. Ben uses a two-pronged approach to raise awareness about the issue, by collecting hard evidence and scientific data pointing to the dangers of psychiatric medications, and also with biting humor lampooning the pseudoscience behind Big Pharma's slick marketing campaigns.

Homeopathy for Psychological Problems (PDF) - by Louise Zeus
Psychiatry is not the only field to deal with problems of the psyche. One of the alternatives is homeopathy, with its similar-cures-similar remedies. A substance that could provoke the symptoms of distress is diluted several times, turning the extract into a potent antidote...

ECT - "Penicillin of Psychiatry" - Review of Shorter and Healy
The history of psychiatry is a story of megalomania. A confounding problem for psychiatry is the profession's failure to examine its therapeutics from patients' perspectives or to put psychiatry's therapeutics to a valid scientific test to determine whether the benefit outweighs the risks from patients' perspective.

Also relevant to this article is another one on the same site, of Professor Peter Sterling discussing the side effects of ECS or electroconvulsive shock.

400-volt shocks applied to brain for 'well-being'
According to a leading doctor, thousands of Irish psychiatric patients experiencing psychological distress have had electric shocks of up to 400 volts administered to their brains, frequently against their will.

Dr Corry is leading the Irish campaign to abolish ECT. "It's irrational, archaic and barbaric it has no place in the 21st century" he says.

"It is universally agreed that the occurrence of seizures in a patient is always harmful to their brain. Within neurology as a speciality, every effort is made to prevent seizures but, incredibly, psychiatry stands out as the only branch of medicine that specialises in deliberately causing seizures."

Coercion in Psychiatry
by Mary Maddock of Ireland Mind Freedom
Electroshock causes brain damage. Electroshock causes brain seizures. People who suffer from seizures know it causes memory loss and yet amazingly electroshock is on the increase worldwide today. All research done to date backs this common sense up but still vulnerable, suffering people are having electrodes attached to their delicate, precious brains while unthinking, greedy professionals are delusional enough to think they are helping them.

Coercion or force has no place in healing or well-being in body, mind and spirit. Human beings are different from all other forms of life in that they have the freedom to choose. If this is not respected, then the so called 'helpers' are acting from a top/down position and perceive their fellow humans as animals who cannot think or evaluate themselves.


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Sunday January 14 2007
updated on Friday June 26 2009

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

Psychiatry as Coercion.

Yes indeed it is.
It is most revealing to review the career of Dr Ewen Cameron in that regard, a monster's monster.

Some survivors of his insane methods met last week in Montreal.

His career is a personifcation of a rule: If it is official, it is corrupt or suspect.

He was:-
1) President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association
2) President of the American Psychiatric Association
3) President of the World Psychiatric Association
4) a member of the Nuremberg medical tribunal a decade earlier, where he accused German medics of things he himself did between 1934 - 1960 or later!!
5) claims to have been a freemason
6) worked for the CIA on MKULTRA mind control experiments on helpless victims

His primary method was to use psychic driving to 'cleanse' the mind. (What is with crazies like the Nazis and their obsession with cleansing?) He also used LSD and electroconvulsive 'therapy' at 30 to 40 times normal power! He was the epitome of madness in my view and it reflects upon the entire 'profession' (or hoax) - some of the craziest people I have ever met have been psychologists who likely got into it to solve their own problems! All those showing such brutal inhumanity are indeed deranged individuals but obiously there are no shortage of takers to help one up the ladder if you have those traits.

And that in turn says a great deal about those in power everywhere. As with Saddam Hussein, consolidating power is done with great brutality even within western governments, not just Russia, Iraq and Germany. The same goes for global institutions like the Club of Rome and UN where talk of and plans for de-population abound - to the tune of 4 billion persons. These monsters just cannot get their fill of killing. They are psychopaths who operate without remorse, thinking only of personal gain. Typical psychopaths divide the world not into just

Posted by: George Enderby on January 15, 2007 03:21 PM


We all need money to survive and we need ways to get it that meet the needs and the opportunities and the resources available in the 21 century that are legal and not traps, but we don\'t need more of them in this way, to be required to become disabled by this system with these false labels and quackery so that we can survive, we need attitudes to change. If we have \"no actual valid and reliable scientifically provable disease\" or \"no mental illness\" then it is merely societal attitudes and dysfunction being played out by the wrong people in the wrong ways. To equate mental illness, epilepsy, diabetes, HIV, cancer and hearing loss all in the same way when it is not is just wrong, isn\'t it? It is time for it to change, now isn\'t it? Shake your head yes!

I have and have had no \"brain disease\", I have had a lot of stress, emotional, and social differences and problems over time because of situations, circumstances, false perceptions, and mistakes the same as others have had and different too. The only disability that I ever really had was the way that other people looked at me, misjudged me, and failed to help me make the best of the skills, desires, experiences, and opportunities that I had, along with the limited set of circumstances that I lived with due to situations and circumstances and an inability to make it all work together for me. Therefore, me getting frustrated at some points in time and acting out and possibly getting myself in some trouble for that along the way. And not understanding that it would have made things better for all of us in the long run if I maybe would have known how to get the real skills I needed back then in order to succeed and also if others would have assisted me with that in the correct, non judgemental, and responsible way that they were being paid to do at the time. That is the past though, this is the present and future I am looking at now though.

Now it is time to say no more. Things must change! If there is \"no disease\" there is no actual disability besides perceptions about fair competetion and false perceptions at that, lies and misdirections, but now perception of others say it is a disability that I should possibly be drugged for or treated with some kind of shock treatment or something like that? I don\'t agree, but actually see this as wrong and you need to prove to me that I am wrong here because the proof that I have shows me that this theory that people have now about what \"mental illness\" is is wrong. The only real and actual \"disability\" is other people\'s perceptions of some people\'s capabilities, or stereotyped thinking, emotions, situations, and misperceptions, lies, mistakes, political assasinations, and isms. Another words it is discrimination.

You do what you want to do, but what has been going on, disabling people on a mass scale for lack of knowing how to do anything different or having any other real options has hurt all of us more then it will ever help any of us. It needs to change and we all need to be able to make a decent and honest living within our own situations, skills, circumstances, and capabilities, and not having to be treated or drugged for false diseases or finding ourselves in some kind of difficulties that we should not have to be in in order to get our real needs met.

It needs to change if we are to move forward and be right about things in life. This won\'t help any of us, fighting for more quackery and no real results besides having half of our country drug addicted and in mental health care of some kind is not making things better! Not at all, this must stop so that it can change if we want to stop the coercion and force and misrepresentations inherent in all of this. If we want to get our economy moving in the right direction again. If you have read this and have any comments for me I would certainly appreciate them. Thanks, Janie

Posted by: Sepp for Janie on July 25, 2007 08:02 AM


Thanks Sepp, for all you do keep up the good work. Janie

Posted by: Janie Lee, M.Ed. on July 25, 2007 11:29 AM


Dr. Szasz is not an anti-psychiatrist. He is against the way psychiatry is practiced. Psychiatry like any other endeavor should be practiced on a contractual basis, otherwise it is assault. The term anti-psychiatry was a term applied to R. D. Laing who inverted the idea of the so-called schizoprenic - instead of being a disabled person they were specially abled. Laing didn\'t believe in mental illness or that schizophrenia was a disease, but he had a... (comment cut off by the system - if you come back here Martin, and remember what you wanted to say, please try again - Sepp)

Posted by: Martin Kessler on October 14, 2007 07:12 PM


Just wonder why you left my facebook page? I was very happy to have you on it. I thought maybe you could add to it, but when you left I suppose you did that for a reason? I am not sure why? I hope that I didn't embarrass you, if I did I want to apologize.

Posted by: Janie on October 20, 2009 01:19 PM


Janie, I don't remember whether there was any reason, or what it was. Sometimes I do leave some people's facebook page, when traffic seems to get too much. Would you remind me what your name is on fb, or contact me there, in some way?

Posted by: Sepp on October 20, 2009 03:42 PM


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The Individual Is Supreme And Finds Its Way Through Intuition


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