It’s election season, which means everyone is looking for ways to tie their own interests and expertise to the candidates and their policies.
Everyone except the American Psychiatric Association, that is.
The professional group, which represents more than 35,000 practicing psychiatrists has a policy that bans members from commenting on the mental status of people they haven’t personally diagnosed.
Maria Oquendo, the group’s president, reminded members of the policy in a blog post we first saw reported in the Washington Post.
“The unique atmosphere of this year’s election cycle may lead some to want to psychoanalyze the candidates, but to do so would not only be unethical, it would be irresponsible,” her statement reads.
Here’s the heart of Oquendo’s argument against the practice:
“We live in an age where information on a given individual is easier to access and more abundant than ever before, particularly if that person happens to be a public figure. With that in mind, I can understand the desire to get inside the mind of a Presidential candidate. I can also understand how a patient might feel if they saw their doctor offering an uninformed medical opinion on someone they have never examined. A patient who sees that might lose confidence in their doctor, and would likely feel stigmatised by language painting a candidate with a mental disorder (real or perceived) as ‘unfit’ or ‘unworthy’ to assume the Presidency.”
It’s also “intellectually dishonest for a mental health professional — or any physician — to give a diagnosis without examining the patient,” as the psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman argued in The New York Times. And such armchair diagnoses could be used as “a political weapon to denigrate an opponent,” he added.
In other words, diagnosing public figures from afar is both unscientific and potentially stigmatizing.
But the policy isn’t just about being fair to patients (and the profession as a whole). It’s actually the result of a messy situation — lawsuits and all — that took place during an election more than a half century ago.
In 1964, a magazine asked 12,000 psychiatrists what they thought of then-candidate Barry Goldwater and turned it into a story headlined “FACT: 1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to Be President.” (Nevermind the FACT that the vast majority of surveyed psychiatrists did not respond.) Goldwater later successfully sued, and the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 created a rule to try to prevent a similar situation reoccurring.
The rule reads:
“On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
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