By Emma Simkin
CN: Psychosis, sexual assault, violence,
terrorism, prejudice, stigma
Trump’s recent announcement has generated even more outrage than usual. Regarding the Texas church massacre that left 26 dead, Trump claims that guns aren’t to blame, but mentally ill people are. Quite rightly, Trump is charged with stigmatising people with mental illness. Moreover, his statement insults the victims of the Texas massacre by implying the crime is not serious in it’s own right – that massacre is only abhorrent when carried out by someone with a mental illness. The President’s stance is incredibly prejudiced against people with mental illness, and we are right to be outraged. Unfortunately, people forget that they make the same statement when they focus on Trump’s alleged mental illness rather than his actions.
Donald Trump certainly isn’t a ‘nice guy’. His actions are almost at a caricature level of bigotry – promising to build a wall to prevent Mexicans entering the country, trying to enforce a Muslim travel ban, mocking disabled reporters and wracking up 24 sexual assault allegations over the past 30-odd years. In his time as President, he’s managed to promote hatred towards every single group of people who aren’t cis straight white men (i.e. the same social identity as himself). In short, he is a textbook bigot, but apparently this isn’t enough to deem Trump unfit to be President. When people try to discuss their outrage, they feel the need to add mental illness into the mix of his moral failings. Google ‘Donald Trump NPD’; almost a million results will come up, arguing that Trump is unfit for office on the basis of an alleged narcissistic personality disorder.
People play the ‘mental illness’ card to delegitimise Trump. It’s a genuine effort to defend the people he attacks, but this discourse only erases the harm he causes to these minorities. When Trump’s opposers feel the need to add ‘mental illness’ into the reasons why he’s unfit for office, they are essentially saying that the plights of minorities aren’t serious enough. It’s insulting to say that his actions alone aren’t enough to delegitimise him as President. Take the 24 women who have made allegations of sexual abuse. The female victims have most likely been traumatised, but apparently this isn’t enough to exclude Trump from being considered a decent President.
Not only are the 24 victims suffering from his actions, all females across the country are subject to his sexism, living in a country where being ‘grabbed by the pussy’ has become normalised. When we say that sexual assault isn’t enough to delegitimise his presidency, we are saying that sexual assault isn’t serious. His actions are more than enough to think he is flawed as a President – adding mental illness into the equation is needless and offensive. Just as a terrorist murdering people in a Church is unacceptable with or without mental illness, Trump is unacceptably bigoted with or without mental illness. Both crimes are already heinous enough to preclude them in jail or preclude them from public office, respectively.
This rhetoric is not only insulting to victims of his bigoted policies, it also damages people with mental illness. When bad people are given the label of mentally ill simply because they are objectionable, it perpetuates the ‘mad = bad’ stereotype, that mentally ill people are morally flawed. This idea is everywhere: mental illness is used as plot for horror films, halloween fancy dress costumes and haunted houses. It’s also in politics. When something is so awful we don’t understand it, the blame is pinned on mental illness.
“When bad people are given the label of mentally ill simply because they are objectionable, it perpetuates the ‘mad = bad’ stereotype”
The public tend to consider this acceptable when Trump is labeled with narcissistic personality disorder, but it’s rather the same as blaming anti-social personality disorder for the reason why someone is a terrorist. These disorders may well lead someone to act in a callous manner, but moral deviances don’t equal a mental illness. When mental illness is blamed for intolerance, prior to any diagnosis, it engrains the link between ‘mad’ and ‘bad’. An armchair diagnosis, whether it’s of a bigoted President or terrorist, will be based on stigmatised views of what mental illness ‘looks like’. For the most part, mental illness doesn’t look like Donald Trump, but it’s so easy to see murders and other moral wrongs as a sign of mental illness; we can’t fathom how anyone could do something so horrific if they were sound of mind. But it fuels the idea that mental illness is another form of moral badness. We are so focused on trying to bring Trump down, we don’t realise we bring mentally ill people down with him.
The allegation that Trump has a personality disorder is particularly problematic. Awful people are often armchair diagnosed as having a personality disorder, usually by people who don’t know the symptoms but simply see ‘badness’ and assume narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder. As pointed out by Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who wrote the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, “grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy” are moral flaws but aren’t the criteria for a personality disorder. “I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” Just because Trump and terrorists are charged with more stigmatised disorders associated with moral wrongdoings, such as narcissistic personality disorder, it doesn’t make it an acceptable assumption.
People with personality disorders are already heavily stigmatised, even by mental health professionals – numerous studies have shown that clinicians and nurses have less empathy for people meeting diagnostic criteria for personality disorders. It’s quite telling that a more cutting insult is to say Donald Trump has a personality disorder, rather than say he’s a bigot, as if personality disorders are just as morally abhorrent as being a racist or a homophobe. Each time a personality disorder is used to insult a perpetrator of a terrible crime, whether a terrorist or a politician, it lends itself to the idea that sufferers of all personality disorders are dangerous and somehow morally flawed.
“Numerous studies have shown that clinicians and nurses have less empathy for people meeting diagnostic criteria for personality disorders”
It’s as though people see another person acting in a way they despise, so they stick a mental illness diagnosis on the despicable person, giving them a reason to deny that their minds work in the same way. It creates some form ‘us’ and ‘them’ separation, with ‘them’ being the bad guys. Unfortunately, when the bad guys are defined by being mentally ill, it puts mentally ill people into the ‘them’ category. As someone who has suffered from psychosis, I’ve experienced the isolation of the ‘us and them’ divide. Someone from college spent several weeks terrified, side stepping and shuffling away from me at every encounter, until I explained that I’d been psychotic not a psychopath.
This sort of discourse is exhausting at best, and life destroying at worst. Confusing madness and badness can leave people with mental illness alienated and unemployed. Diagnostically speaking I’m mentally ill, but I’m hoping that future employers won’t think I want to build a wall around the office block. Every time someone calls Trump mentally ill based on some bigoted policy, it legitimises the idea that mentally ill people are somehow morally flawed. As soon as someone hears mentally ill, they’ll automatically associate it with negative connotations, and now Trump will be added to the mix. Maybe I’ve been doing this whole ‘mental illness’ thing wrong, but I haven’t got pally with white supremacists.
Besides, having a mental illness cannot, and should not, preclude anyone from holding public office. When mental illness is given as a reason to preclude Trump from being President, it doesn’t just lump moral failings and mental illness into a ‘mad = bad’ equation. It also promotes the idea that people with mental illness cannot be good leaders. Plenty of people with mental illness are brilliant leaders. Posthumously, it has been thought that 37% of American Presidents had a mental illness of some kind. Lincoln, for example, has been strongly suspected to have suffered from depression, and Roosevelt with bipolar disorder.
There is no reason to deny someone a position of power simply because they have a mental illness. If their symptoms interfere with their work, then those actions should be the subject of scrutiny, not the disorder itself. If depression caused Lincoln enough cognitive impairment that he was unable to perform his duties as President, then his fitness for leadership should be questioned. However, it should be questioned under the same light as if Lincoln wasn’t depressed, but simply had poor concentration and attention. The same goes for Trump. NPD may well be causing his bigoted self absorption and lack of empathy, but it’s irrelevant – these actions should preclude him from being President, regardless of the psychological reasons behind them.
Disabilities should never be thrown around as insults, regardless of whether they are directed from Trump or from his opposers. It insults oppressed minorities, implying that the crimes against them aren’t bad enough to warrant opposition to his presidency. It insults people with mental illness, lumping their disorders with moral badness and promoting the idea that mentally ill people shouldn’t be successful leaders. Diagnostic name-calling doesn’t bring down Trump – it stoops to his level.