Martha Mitchell effect

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The Martha Mitchell effect is the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, other mental health clinician, or a medical professional[1], labels the patient's accurate 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".

Examples of such situations are:

Quoting psychotherapist Joseph Berke, the authors report that, "even paranoids have enemies". Any patient, they explain, can be misdiagnosed by clinicians, especially patients with a history of paranoid delusions.

Patients may be 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."[2]


Psychologist Brendan Maher named the effect after Martha Beall Mitchell.[3] 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 her the label, "The Cassandra of Watergate".

Although it has been stated that 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 was summoned back to Washington, D.C., in order to prevent her from leaving the hotel or making phone calls to the news media.[4], James McCord admitted in 1975 that her story was true, as reported in the New York Times. [5] More supporting evidence that Martha was telling the truth was published in a 2017 news article in Newsweek about the appointment of a U.S. ambassador. [6]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Reeves, Richard President Nixon: Alone in the White House, p. 511
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