Martha Mitchell effect
The Martha Mitchell effect is the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health clinician mistakes the patient's perception of real events as delusional and misdiagnoses accordingly.
According to Bell et al., "Sometimes, improbable reports are erroneously assumed to be symptoms of mental illness", due to a "failure or inability to verify whether the events have actually taken place, no matter how improbable intuitively they might appear to the busy clinician". They note that typical examples of such situations, may include:
- Pursuit by organized criminals
- Surveillance by law enforcement officers
- Infidelity by a spouse
- Physical issues
Quoting psychotherapist Joseph Berke, the authors note that "even paranoids have enemies". Any patient, they explain, can be misdiagnosed by clinicians, especially patients with a history of paranoid delusions.
Of note is how habitually patients are diagnosed as delusional when their grievances concern health care workers and/or health care institutions, even when the patient has no history of delusion. "A patient arriving claiming to have been injured by another health care professional is regarded as a crazy person who potentially could ruin the career of an innocent colleague."
Psychologist Brendan Maher named the effect after Martha Beall Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell was the wife of John Mitchell, Attorney-General in the Nixon administration. When she alleged that White House officials were engaged in illegal activities, her claims were attributed to mental illness. Ultimately, however, the facts of the Watergate scandal vindicated her and garnered the label, "The Cassandra of Watergate". However, many of her allegations remain unproven, such as her claim that she had been drugged and put under guard during a visit to California after her husband had been summoned back to Washington, D.C. in order to prevent her from leaving the hotel or making phone calls to the news media.
- Bell, V., Halligan, P. W., Ellis, H. D. (August 2003). "Beliefs About Delusions". The Psychologist 16 (8): 418–422. JI 0.325.
- Maher, Brendan A. (1988) "Anomalous Experience and Delusional Thinking: The Logic of Explanations". In T. Oltmanns and B. Maher (eds) Delusional Beliefs. New York: Wiley Interscience
- Reeves, Richard President Nixon: Alone in the White House, p. 511.