Bioethics Blogs

Psychologists not immune from prohibition on diagnosing famous figures

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As consumers of the media, it is not uncommon to “diagnose” public figures with various mental disorders, depending on their representation in the press. But for psychologists and psychiatrists, is doing so unethical?

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Columbia University’s Dr. Robert Klitzman explained that for psychiatrists like himself, there is a prohibition from the American Psychiatric Association on providing professional opinions on individuals they have never met or evaluated before.

Troublingly, though, Klitzman mentions that “Psychologists (with Ph.D.s, as opposed to psychiatrists, with medical degrees) argue that this principle does not fully apply to them, and that offering diagnoses of public figures can be in the national interest.”

According to Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Director, and chair of the 2002 American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code Task Force Dr. Celia B. Fisher, that is not accurate.

“In his article Robert Klitzman elegantly describes the ethical reasons why psychiatrists are prohibited from providing media diagnoses of famous figures, such as Donald Trump, who they have never evaluated,” Fisher explains.  “He mentions several psychologists stating that American Psychological Association (APA) does not have a similar prohibition. These psychologists are poorly mistaken.”

“The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct stipulates that psychologists may only ‘provide opinions about an individual’s psychological characteristics if they have conducted an examination of the individuals in the media, or any other setting,” Fisher continued.

In addition to chairing the 2002 revision of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code, Fisher is also author of Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologist, now in its fourth edition from Sage Publications.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.