Photo of Paula Caplan

Paula Caplan



Training Location(s):

PhD, Duke University

MA, Duke University

BA, Radcliffe College

Primary Affiliation(s):

W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University

Career Focus:

Bias in psychiatric diagnosis; women's health; mother-blaming; veterans' experiences.


As a student, Paula Caplan was quiet in the classroom and, like many women, often questioned herself and her capabilities. Yet today, as a nationally-recognized psychologist, she actively uses her voice to question the "received truth" that often goes unexamined in the discipline, and by society at large. Her voice is explicitly feminist, although she isn't entirely sure where her feminism began. In the late 1960s, Caplan remembers feeling unhappy in her clinical psychology graduate program at Duke University, and wanted to move back home in Missouri even if it meant leaving her husband behind. Unaware that other women felt this unhappiness, it was not until several years later, when Gloria Steinem's voice was commonly heard in the media, that Caplan began to make sense of her experiences through a feminist lens.

Caplan connects her initial interest in mental health issues to her mother. Caplan vividly remembers a conversation she had with her mother when she was just seven years old. Her mother stated, "You know how I clean the house a lot? Well, I have something called a mental illness." Her mother encouraged Caplan to explain this to her friends, so they would understand why sometimes they could not visit. This was a radical position for her mother to take, as mental illness was a taboo topic at the time, with considerable stigma attached to it.

As a teenager, Caplan read and enjoyed Freud, but her dream was to become a journalist. She enrolled in an undergraduate English program at Radcliffe College at Harvard University and recalls receiving a comment on an assignment that noted that her paper was "psychology, and not English". After deciding that journalism was not her destiny, Caplan explored the possibilities of law or education. During this period of uncertainty, a friend asked her, "What do you want to do?" Caplan responded that she was unsure, and her friend stated, "Well I remember your first year, you took psychology, and you came back and you were talking about ... all these people, and you were always so enthusiastic." Caplan then went on to attempt to complete an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Graduate school offered up its own challenges. During her Master's at Duke University Caplan was told by her professors that she had "weak ego boundaries". She was allowed to finish her MA and PhD thesis in Psychology, but they told her she would not be able to train as a clinical psychologist. Confused by this characterization, she sought feedback from faculty in the department who offered information that made little sense. She sought a therapist to help her remedy her "weak ego boundaries", and to further her own confusion the therapist was baffled by her reason for seeking support and told her he could not help her with her boundaries. But she was told that she was going through a difficult time and he could help her with that. Years later she spoke to a faculty member and was told that the male faculty had felt that she thought that she was better than them because she had studied at Harvard. Ironically, Caplan often never felt "smart" enough during her graduate training.

Following her PhD, Caplan completed her clinical training at a hospital. She was nervous interviewing for the training program because she would have to reveal the source of her difficulties at Duke. Luckily, the interviewer offered his assessment - that the faculty at Duke were overly competitive - and offered her an internship. This was a hectic time for Caplan, not only academically, but also personally. She was divorced, getting ready to remarry, caring for two step-children, and planning children of her own. Learning about the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a commonly used personality test, was perhaps when Caplan began to question clinical psychology and psychiatry. To learn about the instrument, interns were required to take the test. To her horror, Caplan received a score which was characteristic of people who are full of tension, anger and fear. In consideration of Caplan's life transitions during her internship, it would make sense that there was greater tension and fear in her life. Years later, Caplan took the test again and her score was completely different, demonstrating that how a person is labeled is not stable.

Caplan spent many years living and working in Toronto, Canada. In Toronto she became more involved in her criticism of the 'mental health bible', the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Caplan first became involved in questioning popular knowledge about women's health with her book The Myth of Women's Masochism. It explored the idea - first made popular by Freud - that women are naturally masochistic. Caplan argued that it is important to examine the environments in which women live, and that no one is inherently masochistic. Following the book, Caplan learned that masochistic personality disorder was being proposed as a new diagnosis for the DSM. Concerned psychologists met with the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to argue against such a disorder. Although members of the APA claimed to agree with the arguments of Caplan and others, they published the disorder under a different name: Self-Defeating Personality Disorder. Another diagnosis, Pre-Menstral Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), was later introduced to the DSM without any evidence of its existence. Prior to its inclusion, Caplan organized a petition to challenge PMDD and aligned herself with the activist organization Association of Women in Psychology.

Since then, Caplan has been invited by the APA to act as an advisor on controversial diagnoses in DSM revisions. This experience has left her shocked at how unscientific and unethical the process is. Her outrage at the use of bad science within powerful institutions like the APA and pharmaceutical companies has led to many creative outlets. In addition to her academic and popular writing, Caplan has written a play on the harms of psychiatry and runs the website where people can share stories and learn about the controversial issues surrounding diagnosis.

In validation of her work, Caplan learned that while she was organizing against the inclusion of PMDD in the DSM, women in the APA office used to cheer every time they received new petitions. Although standing up against psychiatry is a seemingly impossible job, it is evident from the women cheering in their office at the APA, to the people who share their experiences on her website, that her work has touched the lives of many people.

by Jenna MacKay (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

Caplan, P. J. (1985). The myth of women's masochism. New York, NY: New American Library.

Caplan, P. J. (1991). How do they decide who is normal? The bizarre, but true, tale of the DSM process. Canadian Psychology, 32, 162-170.

Caplan, P. J. (1992). Gender issues in the diagnosis of mental disorder. Women & Therapy, 12, 71-82.

Caplan, P.J. (1995). They say you're crazy: How the world's most powerful psychiatrists decide who's normal. Jackson, MI: De Capo.

Caplan, P. J. (2000). Don't blame mother: Mending the mother-daughter relationship. New York: Routledge.

Caplan, P. J. (2004). The debate about PMDD and Sarafem: Suggestions for therapists. Women & Therapy, 27, 55-67.

Caplan, P. J. & Caplan, J. (1998). Thinking critically about research on sex and gender, 2nd edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Longman.

Caplan, P. J. & Cosgrove, L. (Eds.).(2004). Bias in psychiatric diagnosis. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

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