What Might Prevent Psychiatrists From Speaking in Public About Their Opinion of the Mental State of a Public Figure? The so called Goldwater Rule
In the United States the first amendment protects our right to free speech. Although I am not an attorney, I do believe that while you can’t be put in jail for expressing negative things about other people, there are laws that protect people from untrue damaging statements.. These laws provide recourse for people who believe that their careers reputations finances and/or health have been damaged by harmful statements. The Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue as recent as 1990 and the criteria involves whether the statements are true and the context in which they are made. Things get even more complicated when the object involves public officials and public figures who are in the public view because the law encourages free speech especially when it involves this category of people
What does all this have to do with psychiatry? In 1964 Barry Goldwater was running for President against the incumbent Lyndon Johnson. A magazine by the name of Fact published an article titled The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater . The magazine polled psychiatrists about American Senator Barry Goldwater and whether he was mentally fit to be President of the United States. In response to this question, 2,417 out of 12,356 responded. Of those, 657 said he was fit, 1,189 said he was not, and 571 said they didn’t know enough to answer the question. In response to the survey some of the comments that were made by the psychiatrists who responded were as follows (as reported in article in THE BLOG by Jonathan Moreno 8/26/16):
“The Presidency should not be used as a platform for proving one’s manhood . . .”
“Inwardly he is a frightened person who sees himself as weak and threatened by strong virile power around him . . .”
“Since his nomination I find myself increasingly thinking of the early 1930s . . .”
“Unconsciously he seems to want to destroy himself. He has a good start, for he has already destroyed the Republican party . . .”
Moreno in his article also made mention that in 1931 there was a debate at the annual American Psychiatric Association whether Abraham Lincoln was a “manic schizoid personality whose depressive moods stopped short of mental illness.” The article went on to state that “analysis of the dead is not a legal violation, but nonetheless raises the question of fairness as the dead cannot defend themselves. He went on to say that to analyze a living person without data is not only bad practice, it also runs the risk of making the analyst look foolish if the individual later behaves in a way that was not predicted. The editor of that article about Goldwater was Ralph Ginzberg and he was sued for libel and lost the case and had to pay Goldwater $75,000 in damages which is approximately $579,000 in todays money value.
Several years later in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association issued the first addition of Principles of Medical Ethics which is still in effect as of 2017. I will list Section 7 , 1-5 but it is #3 that has informally known as the “Goldwater Rule” which is most relevant to the topic we are discussing.
A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health.
- Psychiatrists should foster the cooperation of those legitimately concerned with the medical, psychological, social, and legal aspects of mental health and illness. Psychiatrists are encouraged to serve society by advising and consulting with the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the government. A psychiatrist should clarify whether he/ she speaks as an individual or as a representative of an organization. Furthermore, psychiatrists should avoid cloaking their public statements with the authority of the profession (e.g., “Psychiatrists know that”).
- Psychiatrists may interpret and share with the public their expertise in the various psychosocial issues that may affect mental health and illness. Psychiatrists should always be mindful of their separate roles as dedicated citizens and as experts in psychological medicine.
- 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.
- The psychiatrist may permit his or her certification to be used for the involuntary treatment of any person only following his or her personal examination of that person. To do so, he or she must find that the person, because of mental illness, cannot form a judgment as to what is in his/ her own best interests and that, without such treatment, substantial impairment is likely to occur to the person or others.
- Psychiatrists shall not participate in torture.
There are very detailed procedures for filing an ethics complaint and how such a compliant will be evaluated on the local district branch level and then up to the national level which are spelled out in detail and include an appeals process. Potential sanctions to a member of the American Psychiatric Association who has been found to be in violation of one of the ethical rules are reprimand, suspension or expulsion from the national organization.
In a article in the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law about one year ago Kroll and Puncey concluded that while some third party assessments are reckless but they do not negate legitimate reasons for providing thoughtful education to the public and voicing psychiatric concerns as acts of conscience. They concluded that the Goldwater Rule was an excessive organizational response to what was clearly an inflammatory and embarrassing moment for American psychiatry. A counter view with which I agree was expressed by Paul Applebaum, M.D. , a past president of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in the current issue (2017) of the same journal. He said the following : “Weighing the real harms that can arise from psychiatrists’ comments on the diagnoses and personality traits of persons whom they have never examined against the likely inaccuracies and hence limited value of such endeavors to begin with, I am left with the conclusion that the Goldwater Rule remains a valuable component of the ethics of psychiatry. However, some modification of the Rule may be necessary, to indicate more clearly that it is not meant to cover analyses that are intended to be shared with the public or works on deceased persons of historical interest.”
As far as I know there have been no sanctions by the APA regarding the Goldwater Rule thus far but this is still a topic which is being discussed both within and outside the psychiatric profession.
Any thoughts are welcome in the comments section below