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anti-psychiatry

anti-psychiatry A term coined in the 1960s for writers who are highly critical of the ideas and practice of psychiatry. Precisely who is included within this group (which is always theoretically and politically heterogeneous) tends to vary. Frequently mentioned are the radical libertarian Thomas Szasz, the more left-wing, existentialist-inclined R. D. Laing and his colleague David Cooper, the Italian mental health reformer Franco Basaglia (all psychiatrists), and two sociologists—the symbolic interactionist Erving Goffman and labelling theorist Thomas Scheff. Sometimes Michel Foucault is also cited in this context. All of these writers, from their divergent stances, view madness and mental illness as social constructs, and emphasize the way in which psychiatry functions as an agency of social control, constraining and coercing individuals, especially in institutional contexts.

The work of Szasz is typical. In The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) he forcefully denounces the application of the language of illness to human thought and conduct, regarding it as mystifying processes of social control. Rather, mental illnesses (except for organic disorders) are ‘problems in living’, to be analysed in terms of social rules and role-playing. Numerous subsequent books reaffirm his message, calling for private, contractual psychiatry to replace state coercion.

In the United States and United Kingdom, acceptance of policies of community care largely predated 1960s anti-psychiatry. In Italy, anti-psychiatry was an important influence on the reforming programme that culminated in the radical legislation of 1978, which introduced community care on a national basis.

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