The Martha Mitchell effect refers to the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health clinician, or other medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in misdiagnosis.
According to Bell et al., “Sometimes, improbable reports are erroneously assumed to be symptoms of mental illness (Maher, 1998)”, due to a “failure or inability to verify whether the events have actually taken place, no matter how improbable intuitively they might appear to the busy clinician”.
Examples of such situations are:
~Pursuit by organized criminals
~Surveillance by law enforcement officers
~Infidelity by a spouse
Quoting psychotherapist Joseph Berke, the authors report that, “even paranoids have enemies”. Delusions are “abnormal beliefs” and may be bizarre (considered impossible to be true), or non-bizarre (possible, but considered by the clinician as highly improbable). Beliefs about being poisoned, followed, marital infidelity or a conspiracy in the workplace are examples of non-bizarre beliefs that may be considered delusions. Any patient can be misdiagnosed by clinicians, especially patients with a history of paranoid delusions.
Patients may be diagnosed as delusional when their grievances concern health care workers and/or health care institutions, even when the patient has no history of delusion. “A patient arriving claiming to have been injured by another health care professional is regarded as a crazy person who potentially could ruin the career of an innocent colleague.”