This is going to get messy–very, very messy.
If there’s one topic American journalists have never demonstrated an ability to cover with sobriety and nuance, it’s mental illness. Smart reporters who would never resort to stereotypes, cliches and myths fall into all those traps when attempting to discuss a person’s mental health.
But now, Stat reports, a leading mental health group has advised its members that the longstanding practice of refraining from commenting publicly on the mental state of public figures, known as the “Goldwater Rule,” should be lifted.
Cable news bookers will surely be seeking the most telegenic and opinionated of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, therapists and social workers to diagnose Donald Trump, now that the executive committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association has told its 3,500 members that they should not be prevented from “using their knowledge responsibly.”
In a statement, the group clarifies its stand:
APsaA is an autonomous mental health professional association which represents psychoanalysts from all mental health professions and academia. Our members include psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, and social workers.
In an email to association members, our leadership did not encourage members to defy the “Goldwater Rule” which is a part of the ethics code of a different mental health organization, the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Rather, it articulated a distinct ethics position that represents the viewpoint of psychoanalysts. The field of psychoanalysis addresses the full spectrum of human behavior, and we feel that our concepts and understanding are applicable and valuable to understanding a wide range of human behaviors and cultural phenomenon.
The key here is commenting on human behavior responsibly. But that’s not exactly the first word that springs to mind when you think of political coverage on television, where cable networks’ political panels shout nightly about the deeper meanings of the president’s latest tweet or power-play handshake with a world leader.
So you’d better gear up for cable news segments with psychoanalysts and former White House communications staffers loudly arguing over whether the President of the United States is delusional, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive or mentally fit for office.
Dr. Prudence Gourguechon, a psychiatrist in Chicago and past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, told Stat “Trump’s behavior is so different from anything we’ve seen before.”
It’s reasonable to assume that many analysts, having never consulted with or treated the president, will offer measured evaluations of Trump’s mental health based on his words and his actions. But don’t count on TV news doing the same.
In June, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski said of the president, “I think he’s such a narcissist, it’s possible that he is mentally ill in a way.” In a way? You see, here’s the problem with the news media and mental illness: they don’t approach it like a physical illness. No journalist would say someone was diabetic in a way. Mental illness–and especially the language associated with it–becomes shorthand for political commentary and, often, insults.
In May, in a segment on the Fox News Channel, a Yale professor said, “We know that if Donald Trump literally means the things he’s said, then he would be psychotic.” Dr. John Gartner said pointed to Trump’s tweets calling the crowd at his inauguration larger than that of President Obama as proof Trump was either delusional or a “psychopathic liar.”
What we will likely see are dozens of politically-driven debates in the guise of a mental health conversation, with the result being even less understanding among viewers of what real mental illness looks like. When Jimmy Kimmel aired a compilation video of the president’s habit of moving things like his soda glass or papers when he sits down at a desk, Kimmel joked “I hope his new health care plan covers OCD.”
CNN reported on the video, not with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, but Jeanne Moos, who played it strictly for laughs, producing a story that included brief comments from a psychology professor, but no explanation that sliding coasters is not proof of anything, especially a life-altering mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder (trust me, I’m not a little OCD, I’ve actually got the real thing).
In fairness, though, Trump is the Offender-in-Chief when it comes to throwing around the language of mental illness just to attack his enemies in politics and the “fake news media.” He recently shot back at MSNBC’s Brzezinski, calling and her co-host Joe Scarborough “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe” because they spoke “badly” of him on a TV show.
The American Psychological Association, in a guide for journalists, urges reporters to avoid “words like ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘lunatic’ and ‘psycho.’ Because they are often used to say something hurtful, they put down those who live with mental illness. Using ‘crazy’ to describe a mentally healthy person doing bad things makes it seem like mental health is a choice. Mental health is medical health, not a bad choice or bad behavior.”
A search of Trump’s Twitter feed shows the president has used each of these words—-repeatedly. Trump has called Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Megyn Kelly and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd “crazy” for various reasons, and he’s called Brzezinski crazy on several occasions, and once last year suggested that she “had a mental breakdown” while talking about Trump on air. To Trump, “crazy” is shorthand for weak or failing.
In 2015, Trump asked if President Obama was “insane.” The year before, Trump said on Twitter “I am starting to think that there is something seriously wrong with President Obama’s mental health. Why won’t he stop the flights. Psycho!”
Trump likes the insults. He thinks they hurt, which of course, they do. And if psychiatrists, liberated from the 1960s-era Goldwater Rule, feel empowered to accept invitations to talk about President Trump’s mental health by scrutinizing his tweets, speeches or watching video of him sliding his water glass on a table, well “responsible” isn’t the word that’s on the tip of my tongue.
Updated on July 25 to include a statement from the American Psychoanalytic Association.