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Suicide Prohibition

The Shame of Medicine

Thomas Szasz

Publication Year: 2011

In Western thought, suicide has evolved from sin to sin–and–crime, to crime, to mental illness, and to semilegal act. A legal act is one we are free to think and speak about and plan and perform, without penalty by agents of the state. While dying voluntarily is ostensibly legal, suicide attempts and even suicidal thoughts are routinely punished by incarceration in a psychiatric institution. Although many people believe the prevention of suicide is one of the duties the modern state owes its citizens, Szasz argues that suicide is a basic human right and that the lengths to which the medical industry goes to prevent it represent a deprivation of that right. Drawing on his general theory of the myth of mental illness, Szasz makes a compelling case that the voluntary termination of one’s own life is the result of a decision, not a disease. He presents an in-depth examination and critique of contemporary anti–suicide policies, which are based on the notion that voluntary death is a mental health problem, and systematically lays out the dehumanizing consequences of psychiatrizing suicide prevention. If suicide be deemed a problem, it is not a medical problem. Managing it as if it were a disease, or the result of a disease, will succeed only in debasing medicine and corrupting the law. Pretending to be the pride of medicine, psychiatry is its shame.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

For the person who takes his own life, suicide is, prima facie, a solution. Nevertheless, we think, and are enjoined to think, that suicide is a problem, specifically a mental health or psychiatric problem. This is a novel idea and a very odd one. The idea of “suicide prevention” is odder still....

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pp. xv

I owe a very special debt to Anthony Stadlen for his generous and invaluable assistance. I thank also Mira de Vries; Keith Hoeller; Roger Yanow; my son-in-law, Steve Peters; and my brother, George, for reading the manuscript and their helpful suggestions...

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pp. 1-12

Birth and death are biological events, the consequences of antecedent actions or occurrences. In the animal world, both events are pure happenings, outside the scope of the organism’s understanding or influence. The development of human consciousness and intelligence creates conditions that enable humans to bring...

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1. Suicide Prohibition

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pp. 13-45

Diseases are prevented. Crimes are prohibited. Our systematic mislabeling of suicide prohibition as suicide prevention is incontrovertible evidence of linguistic distortion in the service of medical- statist ideology. The essay “Youth Suicide” on the Web site of...

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2. The Suicide Prohibition Agent

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pp. 46-65

Medicine is often called a “helping profession.” On the commonly held understanding that “help” means aiding an individual advance his own interests, as he sees them, helping a person who wants to kill himself would be like helping a person to read,...

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3. The Marriage of Asclepius and Atropos

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pp. 66-74

In Greek mythology, Asclepius is the god of healing, Atropos the goddess of dying. In politicized American medicine, their functions are merged. In 2003, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced its sponsorship of “an array of...

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4. Separation: Emigration, Secession, Suicide

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pp. 75-94

Why do people kill themselves? Because they are mentally ill. Death from suicide, experts on mental health insist and the press repeats, is the result of mental illness, just as death from cancer is the result of bodily illness.1 This is nonsense—mindless belief in a literalized...

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5. The Shame of Medicine

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pp. 95-103

Throughout most of history, medical care was a personal service provided by physicians to individuals who sought their help. The recipient-patient selected the individual whose assistance he desired and paid for the service he received. By paying for the...

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6. Envoi

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pp. 104-105

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Albert Camus famously declares, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”1 Seventy years later, everyone knows that suicide is a psychiatric emergency, not a philosophical problem....

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Appendix: “On Suicide” by David Hume

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pp. 109-111

The “principle of self-ownership”—one of the bedrock premises of modern libertarianism—was fully articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. His essay “On Suicide” is a pioneering defense of our “right” to end our own lives. Composed probably in 1755, published...


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pp. 113-121


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pp. 123-127


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pp. 129-132

E-ISBN-13: 9780815650768
E-ISBN-10: 0815650760
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609902
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609906

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2011