Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

The Martha Mitchell Effect

Mental health. Political agenda. Social stigma. These threads make for a 100% true story that leaves viewers of the academy award nominated documentary film, The Martha Mitchell Effect, gasping for breath.

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Who was Martha Mitchell, and how did a US president’s political agenda exploit mental health stigma in the many-layered Watergate scandal?

1. Who was Martha Mitchell? Wife of President Nixon’s Attorney General and campaign manager, John Mitchell, Martha Mitchell arrived on the DC scene in 1969, very shortly after Nixon was inaugurated president. She was a garrulous bon vivant who quickly established herself as an outspoken insider. She became something of a media darling due to her colorful personality and willingness to engage with the press. Martha bucked the typical role ascribed to the wife of a cabinet member, which was to play hostess, support her husband, and refrain from expressing opinions about government, politics, or other ‘important’ matters of the day. At first, the Nixon administration didn’t mind her since she was promoting their messaging, policies, and election efforts, but her frank and uncensored talk was ultimately too much for the Nixon inner circle.

2. From Media Darling to Spurned Spouse. Mitchell started to fall afoul of the President and his men when reporter Helen Thomas published a conversation with Martha where, when asked about the Vietnam War, she emphatically replied, “it stinks.” Martha went from being a “guided missile” for Nixon’s agenda to being banned from Air Force One and systematically banished from public appearances. Efforts to completely discredit Martha Mitchell went full throttle following the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building.

3. Discrediting via Diagnosis. Plain and simple, Martha Mitchell was discredited by slapping a diagnosis of mental illness on her. The story goes like this. John and Martha Mitchell were in California the night of the Watergate break-in. Nixon summoned John back to DC. When it became clear to Martha what was happening, she publicly pinned the Watergate scandal on the president and his inner circle and alleged that White House officials were engaged in illegal activities. Efforts to silence her escalated. She was drugged and held prisoner in her hotel room by her husband’s security team, so as to prevent her from leaving the hotel or contacting the news media. The Nixon administration dismissed her claims as delusional, and her husband stated that he was stepping down from his public position to take care of his wife who had serious mental health issues. In fact, Nixon and Mitchell arranged for Martha to be institutionalized to get her out of public sight and discredit her claims. It was not until years later that she was vindicated for being the original Watergate whistleblower. According to Kate Clarke Lemay, a historian at Washington’s Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Martha Mitchell “was kidnapped, sedated, drugged.” “People denied that this happened to her. In today’s phrase, they gaslit her, they called her crazy, they used that age-old reference for women as hysterical…”

4. The Martha Mitchell Effect. Ultimately, as the facts surrounding the Watergate scandal emerged, Martha Mitchell was vindicated as the original Watergate whistleblower. She was heralded as “The Cassandra of Watergate” – a reference to the Trojan priestess in Greek mythology dedicated to the God Apollo and fated by him to utter true prophecies but never to be believed. Harvard psychology professor Brendan Maher coined the term “The Martha Mitchell Effect” to describe the particular phenomenon that occurs when a medical professional labels a patient’s accurate perception of real events as delusional, resulting in a mental illness diagnosis when, in fact, the person is of sane mind but not believed. In the case of Martha Mitchell, it was much more than accidental misdiagnosis but strategic slandering of reputation by imputing mental illness to discredit someone who would blow open the corruption behind the Watergate scandal.

5. Academy-nominated Documentary Short. Not to be missed, this Netflix original documentary film, directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy and produced by Beth Levison and Judith Mizrachy, captures the drama of this outrageous story using only archival footage. It captures the raw corruption, abuse of power, and vicious personal agendas of powerful political leaders – beginning with President Nixon. It documents with great care the nefarious ways that government leaders invoked mental illness to completely discredit the truth-teller Martha Mitchell. Only forty minutes long, it will leave a lasting impression.

Martha Mitchell was not the first person in history to be discredited on account of alleged mental illness. Neither will she be the last. The Martha Mitchell Effect brings into focus the ignorance, prejudice, stigmatization, and weaponization of mental illness. We will have achieved a healthier understanding of mental illness when such strategies are deemed absurd and obsolete.


Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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