Thursday, August 18, 2016

Psychiatrists diagnosing public figures

I was reading an article today discussing the ethical problems involved when psychiatrists or psychologists apply a psychiatric diagnostic label to a public figure.

One big focus of objection in this article had to do with giving a "diagnosis" without actually seeing the person or doing a proper assessment.   Another concern had to do with the propriety of using a "professional voice" as a mental health care specialist to influence a political matter directly, possibly using diagnostic terminology that could have a pejorative quality.  In this case some of the terms of concern include "narcissistic personality disorder."

It's an interesting issue.  My addition to this debate may seem to support both sides of it!  First, I think it is somewhat arrogant on the part of psychiatrists to assume that they ever have some particular diagnostic wisdom, even with ongoing "assessment." Diagnostic terminology such as "narcissism" should be optional, informal language to be used, if at all, with the patient's consent and endorsement, for the purpose of helping the patient improve health.

One particular diagnostic label is arguably determined more exclusively by a person's observed behaviour, and that is antisocial personality.  Evidence about a pervasive pattern of past criminal acts, cheating, cruelty, etc. contribute to the use of the "antisocial" or "psychopathic"  label.  In this case, the motive of such terminology can go beyond that of offering the patient optimal care:  this type of "diagnostic" consideration relates to public safety, for example to evaluate the degree of risk a violent offender or abusive person might have to harm others in the future.

It may be that in some cases a professional such as psychiatrist might have more experience seeing people with potentially dangerous behavioural phenomena, such as antisocial personality, and have some ability to recognize and voice the risks associated with this.  With some cases of antisocial personality, it is possible for there to be an attractive and charming persona which can act as a sort of disguise, leading others to greatly underestimate risks.

I think it is deeply ethical to warn the public about such things.

But, I think it is unethical to wield a diagnostic label as part of some sort of pejorative, rhetorical attack against anyone.

I also think that specialists such as psychiatrists should be a great deal more humble about diagnostic opinions in any case.

A compromise, in my view, could be to voice general concerns about potentially dangerous behavioural syndromes, to share the opinion that such dangers can coexist with a charming and popular personality, and therefore to encourage great caution about following political trends, without very careful reflection on the cognitive biases that can occur in such situations.

This is the same kind of advice a marketing expert or a social psychologist might give to someone who is shopping for a used well-informed about the risks!  The seller may have great integrity, but there is the risk of the seller only having a "facade" of integrity, and of telling you whatever you want to hear, in order to sell you a defective car at a disastrously high price.  There are some ways to be more accurately informed about such integrity, such as by considering patterns of past behaviour involving the person in question.

Psychiatrists should be able to speak freely about political matters, but there are ways to do this without a potentially unethical and inappropriate foray into diagnostic labels.

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