The study of abnormal behaviour has a long and tragic history. People who have a mental disorder were seen as possessed by evil spirits that needed to be driven out by whatever means.

AdobeStock 286053032A more humane approach developed in the 18th and 19th centuries and mental illness was seen as a physical disease. An alternative view was presented by Szasz (1960) who first argued that mental illness was a myth in an article and later in his controversial text The Myth of Mental Illness. His basic premise is that many psychological disorders should not be categorised as diseases like physical disorders as they are really “problems in living”. All of us face dilemmas and struggles, but this does not mean that we are mentally ill. He was highly critical of these problems being treated as if they were medical problems and he argued against using diagnostic systems like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because they imply that there is an actual disease.

Szasz’s views remain highly controversial, and his central idea that mental illness is a myth has been dismissed as going too far (Poulsen, 2012). However, his ideas still spark debate about how to define normality and abnormality and ensure that the ethical consequences of diagnosis are not overlooked.