Consult-Liaison Education Medicine Observations Policy Reflection

Why I Agree with the Goldwater Rule.

The New York Times and NPR recently published articles related to the Goldwater Rule. In short, a magazine sent a survey to over 12,000 psychiatrists in the US with the single question of whether they thought Presidential nominee Mr. Barry Goldwater was fit to serve as President. Few psychiatrists responded. Of those that did, more than half—still over 1,000—said that he was not. Mr. Goldwater ended up losing the Presidential race, but he sued the magazine over this… and he won. Thus, the American Psychiatric Association has advised that psychiatrists should not diagnose public figures with psychiatric conditions. Some psychiatrists have felt otherwise for the current Presidential election.

There is a hypothetical concept in psychiatry called the “identified patient“. It is most often applied in family systems. For example, consider a family that consists of a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter. The parents bring the daughter to a psychiatrist and say that she has worrisome symptoms. Maybe they say that she is always angry, doesn’t get along with anyone in the family, and does everything to stay out of the house. The parents and the son argue that there must be something wrong with her.

As the psychiatrist works with the family, the psychiatrist learns that the parents have the most conflict. The daughter may have developed ways to cope with this stress in ways that the parents don’t like. Because the parents have the most authority in this system and do not recognize how their conflicts are affecting everyone else, they assume that the daughter is the problem. To oversimplify it, the daughter becomes the scapegoat. The daughter is the identified patient.

Presidential nominees don’t become nominees through sheer will. There is a system in place—putting aside for now whether we think the system is effective or useful—where the American public has some influence in who becomes the ultimate nominee. Candidates are eliminated through this process.

Does the Presidential nominee actually have psychopathology? Could a nominee rather reflect the public that supports him or her? Could it be more accurate to describe the nominee for a specific party as the “identified patient”?

Erving Goffman presents an argument in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that has similarities with the monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts

Goffman and Shakespeare are both commenting on the presence and importance of performance in our daily lives. Goffman argues in his text that context matters[1. I agree that context matters. See here, here, and here.]. We all do things within our power to alter ourselves and the contexts to present ourselves in certain ways.

Some mental health professionals have argued that we can diagnose public figures with psychiatric conditions because of “unfiltered” sources like social media. While it may be true that some people are more “real” (or perhaps just more “disinhibited”) on social media than others, that does not mean that people are revealing their “true selves”. Do you think that people are always eating colorful vegetables in pleasing arrangements? or that people are always saying hateful things, even while waiting to buy groceries, attending a church service, or folding laundry? or that their cats are always cute and adorable, that hairballs and rank breath have never exited their mouths?

Lastly, the primary purpose of diagnosis is to guide treatment. There is no point in considering diagnoses for someone if you’re not going to do anything to help that person.

People have commented that psychiatric diagnoses often become perjorative labels. Unfortunately, there are those who work in psychiatry who will use psychiatric diagnoses as shorthand to describe behavior they don’t like. Instead of saying, “I feel angry when I see her; I don’t like her,” they will instead say, “She’s such a borderline.” That’s unfair and often cruel. If you’re not going to do anything to help improve her symptoms of borderline personality disorder, then why describe her that way? (We’ll also put aside that such a sentence construction reduces her to a diagnosis, rather than giving her the dignity of being a person.) If we are serious about addressing stigma or sanism, then we should only use diagnosis when we intend to help someone with that diagnosis.

I agree with the Goldwater Rule, though not because of the exhortations of the American Psychiatric Association.[2. I’m not a member of the APA. The reasons why I am not a member are beyond the scope of this post.] Diagnosis should have a specific purpose. We often do not have enough information about public figures across different contexts to give confident diagnoses. Presidential nominees are often appealing to various audiences, which can both affect and shape their behaviors. Most importantly, giving a diagnosis to a public figure without any intention of helping that person doesn’t help anyone, especially those who would ultimately benefit from psychiatric services.

Education Medicine Policy Systems

Inspiration from the Surgeon General.

Somehow people knew he was about to enter the room. The thirty or so people in the room were seated, though people began to stand up.

“Are we supposed to stand up for the Surgeon General?” I asked the person sitting next to me.

She shrugged. If we remained seated, everyone would have noticed. So we stood up.

“I’ve been in this position for a year and a half,” Dr. Murthy said, “and I’m still not used to people standing up for me. Please sit down.”[1. I learned later that the Surgeon General has the rank of a Vice Admiral, as the role oversees uniformed health officers. That’s why people stand up for the Surgeon General.]

We were all in that room for about an hour, but Dr. Murthy said little. After some opening remarks about the Turn the Tide initiative related to the opioid epidemic, he asked the audience to tell him what was going well and what could use improvement.

I had never met him before, but I was immediately struck with his listening skills. It was as if he was taking a history from a multi-person patient. He made and held eye contact. He didn’t fidget. He spoke in a quiet yet firm voice. Though he didn’t come across as warm, it was clear that he was interested in and paying attention to whoever was talking to him. His thoughtful follow-up questions indicated that he was listening to what people were saying to him.

He seemed like a good doctor.

As I had never met a federal official before, I later learned that Dr. Murthy was also unusual in that he took notes. (Fun fact: He’s left handed.)

“These are usually publicity events without a lot of substance,” a more seasoned co-worker commented.

By the time the meeting was over, he had covered a sheet from a yellow notepad with copious notes. He expressed what seemed like genuine thanks to us for our time and perspectives.

It was through luck only that I was there. A colleague told me a few days prior that the Surgeon General was scheduled to speak to a local task force related to the opioid epidemic.

“The Surgeon General?” I blurted. “I’d love to hear what he has to say.”

“Then you should come.”


Afterwards, as the Surgeon General’s staff were trying to hustle him out the door, the same colleague who invited me to this event gave me A Look. Only I could see the thought bubble above his head: “Go ask him for a photo!”

Though I appreciated Dr. Murthy’s humility, thoughtfulness, and professionalism, I was also grateful and amused with his willingness to stop for a photo.

Earlier that day I was seeing patients.

“Do you know how much longer you’re going to be jail?” I asked.

“Ten or eleven days.” He looked at my left hand. “You’re married?”


“I should start going to NA meetings again. I’m never gonna meet a woman in here and I get so depressed about not having a family. I want a wife and kids, like my brother. I don’t know why he got so lucky and I got screwed. The TV doesn’t talk to him, he’s got a wife and three kids, God blesses him, but I will wait because the meek shall inherit the earth—”

“What do you think will help you not pick up when you get out?”

He shrugged. “I still don’t have a place to live. Dope helps me feel better.”

We looked at each other and said nothing.

The reality is that the Surgeon General (or any other public official) is just one person. Though he has a grand title, he alone cannot make improve health care. He is part of a system. We can only hope that he and his office will be able to shift the system—even if only just a bit—so that it works better to serve the US population.

What the Surgeon General can do and, at least for me, has done, is inspire physicians to get involved and do better. He could have swept into the meeting and spoke at length about his accomplishments and his status within the federal government. He instead presented himself as a humble ambassador and servant. He demonstrated interest in what our locality has witnessed and experienced. He recognized that, even though he was an academic physician, he is now too far removed from clinical care to speak first as an expert. He solicited and accepted feedback, some of which was discouraging. He was professional. He wasn’t defensive. He acknowledged that it may seem like our feedback would disappear into a void in Washington, DC, though everything else he was actually doing during the meeting gave us hope otherwise. It’s quiet leadership.

There are a lot of problems with health care. Physicians and patients both know this. Physicians are trained to take care of people, not to create and manage financial systems that should only support the relationships between physicians and people. However, if physicians are not involved in the conversations about these systems, then we are not advocating for the patients we serve and the profession that gives us the privilege of doing so. Yes, I know we’re too busy taking care of patients to participate in these conversations that can seem bloated and irrelevant. However, if we don’t get involved to define the problems and solutions, how could we ever expect these systems to improve?