Doctor, First Diagnose Thyself, and Do No Harm
You might imagine that Charlie Sheen, given the number of people who have commented upon his recent activities, has a fairly lengthy shit list. But, so far, he’s only publicly challenged one person to a punch-up: Dr. Drew, AKA Drew Pinsky, M.D., addictionologist to the stars. Said Charlie: "I think me and Pinsky should jump in the ring and he can see how unstable these fists of flaming fury really are. I'll show you how unstable I am. Bring it! Bring it little man!"
Dr. Pinsky is not the first physician to draw broad conclusions about a public figure from few established facts. Years ago, psychoanalyst Dr. James Brussel, author of the book, "Instant Shrink: How to Become an Expert Psychiatrist in Ten Easy Lessons" (take note, Dr. Drew), was asked to profile the notorious "Mad Bomber" who terrorized New York City in the Forties and Fifties.
Dr. Brussel quickly painted a detailed portrait of the Bomber, George Metesky, that included a strong likelihood that he favored double-breasted suits. When apprehended at home, Metesky was wearing pajamas, but, (Aha!) changed into a double-breasted suit for his trip downtown. Dr. Brussel was praised to the heavens.
In a 2007 New Yorker piece on criminal profiling, Malcolm Gladwell wrote: "If you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous... It's a party trick".
My point? Today’s armchair diagnosticians, enabled and empowered by a celebrity-obsessed culture, are, like Dr. Brussel and Dr. Pinsky, performing party tricks. Why not impress and entertain a credulous public with fancy medicalese and psychobabble, while getting to bask in the reflected glow of their celebrity targets?
As a psychiatrist, I am most familiar with the American Psychiatric Association’s position on diagnosis at a distance, although other professional organizations take a similar stance. “It is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
Diagnostic labels, particularly in the highly sensitive fields of mental health and chemical dependency, are scarlet letters that stick, and they should not be recklessly applied to public figures by mediagenic, attention-seeking health care workers who end up perpetuating negative stereotypes of their chosen professions while serving little constructive purpose.