Psychosis is a very dangerous mental health problem, as so many have had the misfortune of realising. Many thought that Martha Mitchell was one such person.

Clinicians and mental health professionals cannot always guarantee accurate diagnoses of mental health conditions. Mental illnesses cannot be diagnosed by blood tests or another form of medical examination – therefore making misdiagnosis possible.

One of the most difficult areas to diagnose are delusions – as beliefs that seem to be totally absurd can never truly be discounted. This is best summarised by the well-known case of Martha Mitchell.

What are delusions?

To begin with, the Martha Mitchell case focuses on delusions, and how a delusion can never be entirely disproven.

A delusion can be defined as an irrational belief that someone exhibits, even though there is little to no evidence to suggest there is any truth in the idea.

Delusions are common in cases of Schizophrenia, Delusional Disorder, Shared Psychotic Disorder and other psychosis-based disorders.

A common example of a delusion is paranoia. This is where an individual may believe someone intends to do them harm, is stalking them, or is listening to their phone calls.

Who was Martha Mitchell?

Martha Mitchell was the name of a woman who was married to John Mitchell – the United States Attorney General in President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Nixon was the President of the United States, and was implicated in a highly-controversial and infamous scandal – since known as Watergate.

Watergate Scandal

Prior to the Watergate Scandal being uncovered, Martha Mitchell had alleged that officials in Nixon’s administration were engaging in illegal activities.

Her claims were seen as delusional, and seen as an insult towards Nixon. Mitchell was labelled as mentally ill, with her claims ostensibly due to mental illness.

But when the Watergate Scandal ensued, it turned out that Martha Mitchell wasn’t delusional, and that at least some of her claims were true.

It isn’t clear how many of her claims were true, and if any were false, but the label of mental illness was clearly incorrect. Martha Mitchell went on to attract the nickname of ‘The Cassandra of Watergate’.

The Martha Mitchell Effect

The entire process of a clinician labelling a patient’s accurate belief as a delusion has since been dubbed as the “Martha Mitchell effect” after this case.

Delusions can often seem to be impossible, but hard to disprove. This case has been linked to the Rosenhan experiment – which called into question the validity of psychiatric diagnoses.

What Happened to Martha Mitchell?

Martha Mitchell certainly left a strong legacy in Washington. The Mitchells separated in 1973, with her husband John serving 19 months in a federal prison for his role in the scandal.

While many of her claims have been doubted, some were certainly true. It certainly isn’t fair to have concluded so quickly that she was mentally ill.

Sadly, Mitchell died in 1976 at the age of just 57. Her ill declined over many years, before she passed away from Cancer.

Martha Mitchell was laid to rest at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, USA.


The case of Martha Mitchell is proof that while delusions are often the result of a poor state of mental health, they do have the potential to be true.

For family and friends, having a loved one struggling with delusions can be difficult. But sometimes, just sometimes, these delusions are truthful – and must be respected.


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