In their paper, ‘Beliefs About Delusions’, Psychologist Vaughan Bell and his colleagues describe how some improbable reports are mistakenly assumed by mental health clinicians to be evidence of psychiatric symptoms.
They write that this is due to a failure in accurately verifying whether the events have really taken place, despite how ridiculous they may seem. Examples could be: pursuit by organised criminals, surveillance by law enforcement, infidelity by a partner, or physical ailments.
This process of patients’ accurate perceptions of real events being labelled delusional by mental health professionals was dubbed the Martha Mitchell Effect.
Who was Martha Mitchell?
Martha Beall Mitchell (1918-75) was married to John Mitchell, US Attorney General in the Nixon administration. According to Martha, White House officials were taking part in illegal activities. Specifically, that the White House was using her husband as a scapegoat to protect Nixon.
She was dubbed “the Mouth of the South” in press reports and her claims were widely attributed to psychiatric illness. And according to Martha, she was held at gunpoint, physically attacked, and sedated by a guard named Stephen King, who was supposedly working on orders from her husband.
(N.B. Stephen King was appointed by Trump as ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2017.)
When the facts of the 1972 Watergate scandal were ultimately revealed, leading to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Martha was vindicated and she garnered the label ‘The Cassandra of Watergate’.
Watch this interview below to hear in Martha’s words the corruption within, and ignorance surrounding, the Watergate scandal at the time:
Why learn about this now?
This still happens today. Unfortunately, Martha Mitchell was not one of few to suffer this type of corruption. History is filled with countless other examples, and even today, we can still see this happening.
Within the last ten years in Germany, evidence of money-laundering at a big bank became a massive scandal, not least because it was initially dismissed as delusional when the accuser was diagnosed with mental illness.
Further, in the UK, NHS whistleblower Kay Sheldon reported failings in the Care Quality Commission in 2012, and was immediately suggested to seek psychiatric assessment.
Before we immediately label someone crazy for speaking out, or duck out of an opportunity to speak out ourselves, we might be reminded of the will and strength of Martha Mitchell and other whistleblowers in coming forward in the face of belligerent authority figures.