The candidacy of Donald Trump poses a real question about the mental health of a political figure and who can try to analyze it. His presence on the top of the Republican ticket requires us to ask whether those of us who are not trained in psychology or psychiatry have the right to try to diagnose whatever mental illness that Trump might or might not have. The question of diagnosing even extends to the professionals who spend their days making assessments, but only of patients who they have personally met.
One of the big questions for those who find Trump’s behavior to be far outside the lines of what we consider normal political conduct is whether or not it is fair to call Trump “crazy.” Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post tilled, “Stop calling Trump ‘crazy.’ It demeans those with mental illness.” Kennedy says:
Is Donald Trump experiencing a mental illness? That’s one question making the rounds these days. The answer is: I don’t know. And neither do the commentators, tweeters and psychiatrists — both licensed and armchair — who’ve diagnosed him as “crazy,” a “psychopath,” not “sane,” having “narcissistic personality disorder” and a “screw loose.”
What I do know is that we ought to stop casually throwing around terms like “crazy” in this campaign and our daily lives. The president of the American Psychiatric Association has said that even for professionals, these sorts of diagnoses, made from afar, are “unethical” and “irresponsible.” And they only serve to demean and undercut people.
“Crazy” is never uttered with compassion. I have never heard it used in the context of trying to get someone the treatment they need. When that language is commonplace, it becomes that much harder for those experiencing mental illness to openly seek treatment that works. It discriminates, in subtle and overt ways, and extends its reach into schools, workplaces and the health-care system, where we still don’t provide routine mental health exams. When we use that word the way we have, we perpetuate the dangerous, “separate and unequal” treatment of these illnesses, and continue to pretend that the brain isn’t part of the body.
Mr. Kennedy’s words are important; they cause us all to stop and think about the risks of being loose with our language about someone’s who’s mental health we might question. But we need to be careful to not become so non-judgmental of public figures that we cannot intelligently discuss a candidate’s fitness for office in areas other than positions on issues or previous experience.
Even Trump supporters say that he is a candidate unlike any other that we have previously had in American history. He is unpredictable, eccentric, contradictory, confusing, belligerent, insensitive, unapologetic, myopic – and these are all words that are acceptable to say. At some point we are required as stakeholders in our democracy to assess whether or not this man is fit to be president. If it is off-bounds to evaluate his mental health (and Patrick Kennedy makes a very good argument for this), then we must use other terms. These include his temperament, his wisdom, his critical thinking skills, his social skills, his “grace under pressure” (a term used by Patrick Kennedy’s uncle, John F. Kennedy, to describe courage).
It is Republicans who usually rail against being politically correct. Yet somewhat at their insistence, we are discouraged from questioning Trump’s state of mind. Republicans also do not like us wondering whether George W. Bush, Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin had the intelligence to hold the highest office in the land. Yet these are vital questions. If David Halberstam made a sound case in his book The Best and the Brightest that at one particular time in our history those who seemed to be the smartest among us failed keeping the U.S. out of a preventable war in the 1960s, it does not mean that we cannot question the mental and psychological bona fides of candidates for office.
Patrick Kennedy is certainly right that it is not for us to make diagnoses or to use pejorative terms like “crazy.” However, we must retain the freedom to state that someone is not intellectually or temperamentally fit to be in office. If someone asks us “why,” we don’t have to respond with a diagnosis. We simply need to point out the behavior that raises our concerns. Fortunately, Mr. Trump has made that easy for us.