In 1964, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater issued some alarming “extremist” statements, drawing criticism from the general public and some mental health professionals.
The uproar prompted FACT magazine to survey 12,356 psychiatrists regarding Goldwater’s mental health status. While none of the respondents had personally spoken with or examined Goldwater, they provided negative opinions on his psychological health, deeming him unfit to serve as president of the United States.
In the wake of serious backlash following the release of the survey results, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) passed the “Goldwater Rule,” which made it unethical for a psychiatrist to issue a statement on the mental health of a public figure without first conducting a full clinical examination.
Wendy Plante, Ph.D, director of outpatient services for Children at Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center at Rhode Island Hospital reported that a panel recently re-visited this matter.
Plante is also a member of the Rhode Island Psychological Association’s (RIPA) Ethics Committee.
The Interaction of Ethics and Politics
Part of the Bradley Hospital Seminar Series. “The Intersection of Ethics and Politics in Clinical Care in a Polarizing Environment” featured a panel of mental health providers who discussed the Goldwater Rule and how politics might enter the therapy room.
Plante indicated that psychologists do have some responsibility “to enter the fray to educate the public about how psychology informs political decisions.” However, she emphasized, “Ethics also asks us to communicate personal biases.”
Psychologists need to be responsible when making statements about celebrities’ and political figures’ psychological condition.
The public might view comments as representative of the field of psychology as a whole, Plante said. When speaking on behalf of the field, psychologists have to back up comments with science and note the limits of their knowledge and competencies, she said.
Making Judgments Not a Good Idea
Making judgments based on what is seen in the media is not a good idea, she added. “We haven’t done testing, interviewed them or their family or used other tools.”
Furthermore, care should be taken not to further stigmatize mental illness. Plante said, “Hopefully we’ve reached a point where we aren’t implying that people with mental health diagnoses cannot hold public office. If their behavior makes them unfit, that’s the crux of the matter.”
Emily Mohr, Ph.D, public education coordinator for the Massachusetts Psychological Association (MPA), pointed out that relying on reports of behavior, motivation, tone and intent, which might be coming from a biased source, is not a good idea.
“You don’t fully understand why someone is doing what they do,” she said. Rather, several independent tools, strategies and interviews are needed to arrive at a diagnosis.
Psychologists are entitled to private opinions, but when making public statements, Mohr urged caution, since comments might be misperceived.
“When speaking in a public manner, words may be taken and used in a way you didn’t intend,” she said. Any psychologist making public statements should offer explicit details and clearly explain that the comments are not a diagnosis.
“I would not feel comfortable if someone was making a determination about my psychological status without evaluating me and knowing all the context,” she said.
Elaine Ducharme, PhD, ABPP, said, “The Goldwater Rule really governs how we as psychologists work in/with the media. I know some psychiatrists will go beyond this. But, in general, we really see this as a very dangerous practice.”
Phyllis Hanlon has been a regular contributor to New England Psychologist since 1999. As an independent journalist, she has also written for a variety of health, medicine and business consumer and trade publications.