Posts tagged: mental health

Another psychologist criticizes some media psychologists

By , December 21, 2009 11:42 am

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 can be found here.

It appears that I am not alone in my criticism of, and concerns about, media psychologists who speculate about an individual’s mental health or issues. In August, I discussed a story out of the U.K. that quotes from the ethics code for the British Psychology Society. And just yesterday, I discovered Dr. Gary Wood’s blog. Wood is a U.K. social psychologist who has extensive media experience and who has also blogged about this problem. He, too, believes that a psychologist shouldn’t be speculating about the private lives of celebrities.

But he goes even further in another blog entry where he writes:


I tell them that I don’t talk about celebrities lives as it’s unethical. I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of celebrities and neither do the two-bit hacks who cough up pithy insights for self-aggrandisement. My refusal comes as a shock, even for the producers I routinely work with. It’s become so normal to gossip about celebrities that it’s difficult to get the point across! Psychologists should not be gossiping and speculating on the inners works of people’s minds! If they are clients then it’s confidential, and if they are not clients then they have no insight anyway.


I’ve read of so-called reputable psychologists (read ‘gossipologists’) offering mental health diagnoses of celebrities. I’ve also seem them discussing the mental states of celebrities’ young children. Nothing they say is ever meaningful and it’s certainly unethical. It’s gossip, plain and simple! The fact that someone has a degree in psychology or a PhD in ‘the social impact of jogger’s nipple’ does not mean they have any valid insight into the mental state or deepest motivations of any celebrity.

Psychologists should abide by a common set of values that shouldn’t be prostituted for a one-liner in ‘Celebrity Life’ magazine. Surely these values should be higher than picking over the bones of skeletons in celebrities’ closets.


While it’s nice to know that at least some fellow psychologists on the other side of the pond agree with me that psychologists should not engage in such commentary, and I know that a number of American psychologists agree with me, I wish even more American psychologists would speak up on this issue. If for no other reason, it is our professional image that gets harmed when the public gets the idea that psychologists gossip, form opinions based on inadequate assessment, or will tell all to the media.

Privacy and ethics: discussing celebrities’ private lives

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By , December 21, 2009 10:58 am

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series and focuses on what several ethics codes say about privacy and discussing individual’s mental health or private lives.

I’ve occasionally blogged about statements some media psychologists have made in discussing individuals in the public spotlight. Some of my concerns stem from my concerns about respecting the privacy rights of individuals. Other concerns stem from my interpretation and application of the professional ethics code for psychologists. Today’s news that actress Brittany Murphy died at the age of 32 immediately started the rumor mill, with some stories speculating about drug problems and addiction and others speculating that an eating disorder was the cause of her death. While the cause of her death may be a matter of curiosity and might serve as a cautionary tale for others, is repeating unconfirmed rumors ethical journalism or ethical for a psychologist, or is this just gossip-mongering for other purposes such as selling one’s paper or product or services?

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The Albert Gonzalez case: another Asperger’s defense?

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By , December 16, 2009 8:54 pm

A story on Threat Level yesterday by Kim Zetter reported that hacker Albert Gonzalez has submitted court filings seeking reduced sentence based on diminished capacity under USSG §5K2.13.   The defense reportedly submitted a report by a psychologist that indicated that Gonzalez’s behavior was consistent with Asperger’s Disorder and that Gonzalez may have been impaired in his ability to know right from wrong in evaluating his behavior.

USSG §5K2.13 of the sentencing guideline states:

A sentence below the applicable guideline range may be warranted if the defendant committed the offense while suffering from a significantly reduced mental capacity. However, the court may not depart below the applicable guideline range if (1) the significantly reduced mental capacity was caused by the voluntary use of drugs or other intoxicants; (2) the facts and circumstances of the defendant’s offense indicate a need to protect the public because the offense involved actual violence or a serious threat of violence; or (3) the defendant’s criminal history indicates a need to incarcerate the defendant to protect the public. If a departure is warranted, the extent of the departure should reflect the extent to which the reduced mental capacity contributed to the commission of the offense.

An application note for the guideline clarifies:

“Significantly reduced mental capacity” means the defendant, although convicted, has a significantly impaired ability to (A) understand the wrongfulness of the behavior comprising the offense or to exercise the power of reason; or (B) control behavior that the defendant knows is wrongful.

Most individuals with Asperger’s that I have worked with have a heightened sense of right and wrong, and while they may engage in repetitive behaviors or have trouble conforming to social expectations, I know of no link between Asperger’s Disorder and this type of criminal behavior other than hacker Gary McKinnon’s attempt to also raise it as a defense in his case (and Viachelav Berkovich’s case). But based on the language in the sentencing guidelines, it seems possible that the defense might argue that hacking was a repetitive — almost compulsive — behavior that Gonzalez could not control even though he knew it was wrong/illegal. If they’re arguing that he actually was significantly impaired in his ability to evaluate the wrongfulness or illegality of his actions, I think they’d have a tougher argument to make, but of course, I’ve never assessed Gonzalez nor read the psychologist’s report and findings.

Today, defense attorney Martin Weinberg submitted a response to the government’s response to the memo to the court. The defense did not object to a continuation but did object to what seems to have been a government request to have their own expert evaluate Gonzalez. The defense memo says, in part:

the government cites no authority for requiring the defendant to submit to examination by a government expert for purposes of sentencing, and there is none of which the defendant is aware except in capital cases. Fed. R. Crim. P. 12.2(b) and 12.2(c)(1)(B) authorize the Court to authorize an examination of the defendant only if “a defendant intends to introduce expert evidence relating to a mental disease or defect or any other mental condition of the defendant bearing on either (1) the issue of guilt or (2) the issue of punishment in a capital case” (emphasis added). Defendant objects to any compelled examination by the government.

You can read today’s defense memo here.

Update/Note: Just to be clearer: there have been forensic studies and reports of individuals with Asperger’s engaging in criminal behavior, but so far, most of the cases I’ve read have been sexual or violent crimes that have been possibly linked to empathy issues and they are only a very small subset of individuals with Asperger’s. It is only within the past year that I can recall seeing Asperger’s used as part of a defense in hacking cases or non-violent crime. In two of the three cases, there was a financial aspect to the crime or a financial benefit to the individual who committed the criminal behavior. In the third case, Gary McKinnon’s case, the motives did not appear to have any financial aspect or produce any financial benefit. Should that make a difference in the court’s consideration?

If readers know of other cases, please post them.

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