Just a few short weeks into President Donald Trump’s first term and there is a remarkable uptick in speculation regarding his mental state. This isn’t actually a new phenomenon: leading up to the 2016 election, there were a number of published articles that pursued this topic. Even in late 2015, psychologists were willing to go on record as diagnosing Trump with narcissistic personality disorder. This act is in direct defiance of the Goldwater Rule, an ethical guideline stating that mental health professionals cannot diagnose someone they have not actually treated. Of course, this does not prevent speculation, and it even supports those who called for an evaluation. Unfortunately, the ethical rules of psychiatry do not bind non-professionals.
After news that Trump had repeated a known lie about voter fraud in a meeting with various legislators, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and outspoken New York Times columnist, Tweeted that Trump was “obviously mentally ill the moment he took office.” This is an excellent example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to false authority” — Krugman, for all his brilliance in economics, does not hold any degrees in medicine or psychology; his speculation is therefore ungrounded.
After news that Trump brushed off his ongoing conflict with the intelligence community, framing it as journalistic sensationalism, liberal pundit Keith Olbermann declared that Trump was “disconnected from reality”; that his behavior was “crazy.” Later he went on to declare that “clinically ill psychopaths like [Trump] feel no human emotion. They don’t laugh, cry, empathize.” While Olbermann has a long career of sports broadcasting and political commentary, he also does not hold any degrees relevant to diagnosing psychopathy. Again, his speculation is ungrounded.
Now there is a petition on change.org that reads, “We, the undersigned mental health professionals, believe in our professional judgment that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States. And we respectfully request he be removed from office, according to article 3 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, which states that the president will be replaced if he is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.’” Change.org does not provide controls on who is able to sign a petition; qualifications are not checked. There are more than 5,000 signatures on the petition — at the time of writing, the 50 most recent signatures included only two claims to medical training, and one direct admission of not having any. Stipulating that these claims are true, that is 48 laypersons and two willful violations of the Goldwater Rule — none of which equals a valid diagnosis.
When discussing the mental health of any politician or celebrity, we must remember that even those qualified to diagnose a patient cannot do so without treating them. We must also strive to avoid reinforcing the societal stigma against mental illness. In the absence of precise diagnosis, which we cannot achieve in this situation, constant attempts to pin these various labels on Trump leaves only the nebulous assertion of mental illness. Someone reading these stories can easily walk away believing that, narcissist or psychopath, Trump is clearly “insane.” This accomplishes nothing except a reinforcement of the idea that insanity is the same as incompetence.
— U.S. Dept of Defense (@DeptofDefense) January 23, 2017
There are no laws preventing a president from carrying any clinical diagnoses, let alone mental ones. Nor should there be — should someone with autism be banned from the office even after successfully campaigning and winning? Would well-managed obsessive-compulsive disorder prevent the president from carrying out his or her duties? The issue is not whether the president “is mentally ill,” the issue is whether the president can do his or her job.
If people want to label Trump incompetent or evil, they should use those words to do so. Even Dr. Allen Frances, the man who wrote the official guidelines for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, agrees with this sentiment, writing that “dismissing Trump as simply mad paradoxically reduces our ability to deal with his actions.”
To declare someone mentally ill as a shortcut for declaring their behavior, mindset, and/or qualifications insufficient, is to reinforce the pejorative nature of the label “mentally ill.” But one can be mentally ill without being an incompetent liar, and one can be an incompetent liar without being mentally ill. Insisting on the link just softens the impact of the argument and demeans those who do not deserve it.
In short, when discussing Trump, calling him crazy is a disservice to those of us who actually are. Do us a favor — knock it off.