The NY Times ran an AP piece that featured criticism of mental health professionals who offer their diagnostic opinions of celebrities in the news. The article quotes Chicago psychoanalyst Mark Smaller who was at APsaA's annual winter meeting in New York last week:
''I've been very upset about this... This idea of making a diagnosis of someone they've never met is completely inappropriate, and it gives mental health professionals a bad name... Trying to make such a diagnosis based purely on someone's behavior -- and worse, their behavior as portrayed selectively by the media -- is scientifically impossible.''
Smaller's comments were made in reference to mental health professionals who have been quoted in magazine and tabloid press coverage of Britney Spears. People Magazine's Peter Castro offers an editor's viewpoint on the subject:
''What people need to realize is that we had sources very close to Britney -- more than one -- telling us that they believed she did indeed suffer from mental illness, and some even used the term bipolar disorder,'' says Castro. ''So it was only responsible on our part to ask a specialist in this kind of behavior. You had a woman here who was hospitalized. This is the first time we were hearing that hey, all this nutty behavior may really have something to do with mental illness, maybe bipolar disorder.''
It may be a journalist's responsibility to ask an expert's opinion before writing about a celebrity's mental health, but in response to such a request, a professional should explain that it is impossible to offer a reliable diagnosis of someone they haven't met and assessed thoroughly. (And, discussing properly conducted assessments with the press is out of line, as well).
I recognize that some therapists might be tempted by the opportunity for a little publicity or some narcissistic gratification that might come with being quoted in the press. The bottom line is, however, that we can't make these diagnoses at a distance. Doing so is unfair to any person who is the target of such a public diagnosis and it misrepresents the work we do in our professional lives. Notwithstanding Mr. Castro's sense of journalistic ethics, mental health professionals are not an arm of the gossip press and we are guided by a different set of ethical obligations that puts the welfare of patients above publicity, self-promotion, the sale of magazines and voyeuristic gratification of the general public.