Celebrity “Mental Cases” and the Goldwater Rule

We would like to thank one of our subscribers, Will Fitzhugh, who reminded us of the origin of the Goldwater rule in his comment on our previous story. We’d also like to thank Dr. Mark Pollack of Massachusetts General Hospital who originally taught us about this rule.

Barry Goldwater was a five-term Republican senator from Arizona and his party’s nominee for President in the 1964 election which was won by Democrat Lyndon Johnson. There is a rich history of Goldwater’s political career but the part of it we’d like to tell you about here gives him something in common with Megan Fox. Like Fox, Goldwater was subjected to public statements about his mental state by psychiatrists who were interviewed for a magazine article. In Goldwater’s case, the article was published just before the 1964 election and questioned his fitness for office. This behavior of psychiatrists, who offered diagnoses of Goldwater without ever having examined him, led directly to new professional ethics standards from the American Psychiatric Association which has to occasionally remind psychiatrists of the Goldwater Rule against commenting on the mental conditions of people they have not personally examined. Such a reminder was issued in 2007 in response to comments about the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

While researching the story on Megan Fox, we came across an article tastelessly entitled The Top 8 Celebrity Mental Cases, identifying some public figures who have bravely and generously shared their medical conditions and experiences in order to help others with the same or similar conditions cope. Some of the celebrities, however, seemed to have been “diagnosed at a distance” as in the case of Megan Fox. We feel that the Goldwater rule should apply to journalists and authors as well.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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