The Goldwater Rule is a principle introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in response to a survey of psychiatrists published in Fact magazine in 1964 and nearly half of the responders opined that Barry Goldwater was unfit to run for president.
The “Goldwater Rule”
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. (Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry)
This ethical guideline was put in place to avoid clinicians trying to diagnose or analyze a particular public figure despite never interviewing or meeting the person.
Without a doubt, the outcome of this past year’s election has had an impact on the collective psyche in a way never before experienced. Disappointment with the results for some has turned into deep-seated anger. Perhaps one of the more stark and surprising reactions has come within the mental health community. Despite this rule, a number of psychiatrists have deemed it necessary to offer their clinical assessment on the current president. These include the American Psychoanalytic Association, clinical publications and opinion pages of newspapers.
Maintaining this ethical approach is essential. As summarized by the former president of the American Psychiatric Association, Maria A. Oquendo, MD, “Simply put, breaking the Goldwater Rule is irresponsible, potentially stigmatizing, and definitely unethical.”
Notably, a recent Harvard study showed the deep extent of bias within reports by the major news outlets, and clinicians trying to formulate a clinical opinion from this would be dealing with skewed data.
Lastly, as psychiatrists, tossing around our opinions collectively in public has the potential for it to be weaponized, and this is a bad idea regardless of who occupies the White House. Caution and restraint need to be urged before going down what potentially can be a very slippery slope.