Tricky diagnosis

Dr Jeremy Swinson follows up our February 'Looking back' piece.

Chris Timms is right: retro-diagnosis of celebrated historical figures such as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery does not bear close scientific scrutiny (‘Stark raving normal?’, February 2018). This is especially the case where the diagnosis being made is one of autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). As Simon Baron-Cohen and others have pointed out, ‘autistic’ behavioural traits are normally distributed across the population. Bernard Montgomery certainly had some of these traits, but then so do we all.

Bernard Montgomery is not the only historical or contemporary figure to be the subject of such retro-diagnosis, since his death the mental health of the former US President Richard Nixon has been the subject of considerable speculation. However, we should be very wary indeed when tempted to suggest any psychiatric diagnosis of the present incumbent of that post. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has forbidden its members from doing so. Such an embargo dates from 1973 after Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, sued Fact magazine for diagnosing him as being unfit to be president. Thereafter no APA member has been allowed an attempted diagnosis or warn of any public figure’s mental functioning, lest they bring opprobrium on the profession (see Hamilton, N., New Statesman, September 2017, pp.25–29).

Be warned. I would not want any BPS member to be guilty of ‘fake news’. It would be best to keep our thoughts on the subject to close friends.

Dr Jeremy Swinson

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