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Politics, Ethics & Mental Health – Oh My!


With all of the tumult of the recent election season, as well as the first month in office for the new president, many people would characterize American politics as of late nothing less than “crazy”. That being said, it is nonetheless (rather it may be all the more) important as citizens to remain reasonable during a time when our nation seems ever more chaotic and tense. And part of being reasonable is refraining from hyperbole.

Unfortunately this week we witnessed some in a position of high regard do just the opposite – and very publicly. In a letter to the New York Times, 35 mental health professionals stated that they “believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump’s speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president”, citing his “inability to tolerate views different from his own”, “rage reactions”. “inability to empathize”. They went on to argue that “individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them (journalists, scientists)”.

While many Americans disapprove of President Trump’s politics (and even some who agree with his politics still have serious concerns about his tone), it is one thing to have a personal opinion and another to have a professional opinion. It appears in this case, those who wrote the letter have failed to recognize this distinction.

Mental health is already a greatly misunderstood subject in the United States. People still often times equate mental illness with either a lack of discipline, lack of character, or both. Psychology (the study of the mind) and Psychiatry (the study of the brain) are still relatively young fields, fraught with scandal due to errors in early theory and abuse in practice over the years. Therefore, when a group of mental health professionals make a quasi-diagnosis in one of the largest daily news publications in the country – and claim that they are confident enough in their findings to suggest that the termination of the president’s service – it does a great disservice not only to these fields but to the nation as a whole.

By suggesting that they have enough information to make any kind of evaluation of a person’s mental health based solely on what they have seen in the media, is highly unethical, and breaks what is known as “The Goldwater Rule”, instituted following a 1964 incident where a group of mental health professionals commented on the mental health of then presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Anyone offering a diagnosis of a public figure who has not personally examined the individual, reviewed their medical record and gained the appropriate authorization to share that information publicly, has no credibility.

Those who oppose President Trump, whether for his politics or apparent lack of decorum, would do well not to associate themselves with individuals like those who wrote the letter to the times. Not only do such statements help to reinforce stigma about mental illness (by suggesting mental health alone is reason enough for someone to be unfit to serve) but it also reinforces the idea that science, like everything, really is just a matter of opinion, and that just because someone is a well educated “professional” (like a scientist or journalist) does not mean that they are reliable sources of information.

There is enough confusion and misinformation out there already. As mental health advocates concerned about the safety and welfare of all those living with mental illness, we need to ensure that those regarded as reliable sources of information on the topic are helping to clarify things, not further confuse them. Instead of abusing our credentials to try and blacklist an unpopular politician, let’s work instead to utilize science to provide the best possible care for those in need of treatment. I believe that’s something people of any political persuasion can get behind.

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