Armchair Psychology and Election 2016 –

Content Note: Ableism, Mental Health, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Politics, Election 2016
The word "crazy!" on a white cloud against a psychadelic background. Keyword: Armchair psychology

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So I’ve been working on my post about the Democratic National Convention (which I’m finding very difficult to write, for a number of reasons) and I’m hoping to get it online soon. But something else has come up that I want to talk about: how armchair psychology has entered the campaigning in the 2016 election.

Now, I’m certainly not the first to write about this and I won’t be the most eloquent. But I’ve actually noticed this happening since the primaries, when Donald Trump likened Ben Carson’s self-described “pathological temper” to the pathological issues of a child molester (in that neither can be cured, Trump said, but that’s not how the public took his comments.) Nonsense with a recent petition put me over the edge.

Yes, nonsense.

For Clarity’s Sake

Let me say it again, for those that haven’t heard me say it before: I intensely dislike Donald Trump and just about everything he stands for. I think that he’s a bullying, abusive liar and the idea of him as President of the USA is terrifying to me. Despite having some misgivings about Hilary Clinton that I’m finding fairly difficult to navigate my way around at the moment, I’ll still do whatever I can to get her elected, because the alternative is just unthinkable. (And for what it’s worth, the idea of voting someone in to keep someone out doesn’t create any real cognitive dissonance for me — as a Canadian voter, I’ve had to do this several times.)

But despite my dislike for Donald Trump, armchair psychology in the form of speculation about any potential mental health diagnoses he may have has made me uncomfortable right from the get-go, from everybody but a select group of friends and colleagues that I know have a lot of experience in the mental health sector and the qualifications to diagnose someone given the opportunity to spend adequate time with a person. Not that I’m perfect — I’m not qualified to diagnose, and I can remember discussions with these colleagues where, as we’ve speculated on what might motivate some of Trump’s behaviour, I’ve said that it seems like narcissism or perhaps even sociopathy are possibilities. Even those discussions were ones in which I shouldn’t have engaged in, and I don’t anymore. I should have known better than to engage in that sort of speculation.

But I will say this: the difference between this discussion between me, as a person with education about mental health issues and experience in the field and these colleagues presently working in the field and able to diagnose, and the average person on the internet saying, “Trump is such a psychopath” (or “Could Trump Pass a Sanity Test”, where noted media figure Keith Olbermann evaluates Trump for psychopathy using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) is:

  • My colleagues and I know that it’s dangerous to toss around mental health terminology in the general public arena with regards to a person’s potential mental health diagnoses, especially if you’re someone with the power to influence the way people vote (another candidate, a speaker at a convention, a media person), when you’re not qualified to diagnose people. Armchair psychology has consequences.
  • My colleagues and I are careful to avoid even the suggestion that a mental health diagnosis makes people unfit for certain kinds of work, because that’s ableist bullshit.

And this, which really should be most obvious reason to end all this armchair psychology, and the reason why the internet petition encouraging the Republican party to have Donald Trump evaluated for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is in particular so objectionable: My colleagues and I know that even if a person has the credentials required to diagnose mental health conditions, it’s unethical to do so without meeting the person and spending time with them.

(This petition is still up, but I’m not going to link to it. It’s easy enough to find if you want to look for it.)

Unethical! And the petition’s creator knows this — she said so in the preamble to the petition. The interesting thing about this petition is that while its creator seems to know why asking people to sign a petition saying “Donald Trump is a narcissist and I think it makes him unfit for President” would be inappropriate, and makes it appear like she’s not asking people to do that…she ultimately really is. And if she is a mental health professional (she doesn’t state her qualifications), that makes the petition particularly egregious.

Let’s unpack this.

The Petition to Have Trump’s Mental Health Evaluated

The creator, stating that she knows that it’s unethical for clinicians who haven’t spent time with a person to diagnose them, is calling on mental health diagnosticians who have observed in Trump’s behaviour (in the media, presumably) the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder as listed in the DSM-V (she then lists them) to endorse the idea that the Republican party should evaluate Trump’s mental health fitness to hold office based on what they’ve seen. The petition was specifically targeted (as you can apparently do with the particular company that she used to create it) to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

I would imagine that her argument is that she’s not asking anyone to diagnose, but instead asking people with the credentials to diagnose to suggest to the Republicans that they find someone who can ethically evaluate Donald Trump and have it done for the good of the country. But there are a couple of problems with this:

  1. This petition didn’t stay among mental health diagnosticians. I found the link to it in a Facebook group whose members work in all sectors, and a lot of people indicated that they signed. The link to the petition also went out over Twitter using a hashtag that trended. It invited armchair psychology from all over the world.
  2. Even if it stayed in circulation only among mental health diagnosticians, it’s a request with a bias toward the idea that Trump *does* have a personality disorder that will make him unfit to govern. Obviously the creator, despite her acknowledgement that it’s unethical for someone in her position (assuming that she’s a diagnostician; again, she doesn’t state her qualifications) to do so, has decided that Trump has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is asking other diagnosticians to support her (again, unethical.)
  3. Even if we completely ignored what I said in Bullet #2…she’s asking diagnosticians to support a request to the Republicans to have Trump evaluated for mental fitness based on media footage of his campaign. We don’t see or hear what Trump is like at home, church, in his office every day (at least not unfiltered through the media). We see him in only one facet of his life, and a request to evaluate him based on that is unfair. And unethical.

Story time.

The Unfair Assumption That Unwanted Behaviour is Always Due to Disability

I was in a support position for a family where a 17-year-old male had a developmental disability. The parents came to me at one point and asked if I could arrange for an appointment with a behaviour consultant from a children’s support agency.

“His disability is making him disrespectful, argumentative, and very difficult to deal with,” they said. “We can’t get him to do anything we ask.”

“We can do that,” I said, “There’s a waiting list, but I’ll get the referral started. But keep in mind…him being disrespectful, argumentative, difficult to deal with, and unwilling to do what you ask might have more to do with the fact that he’s a 17-year-old boy than it does with his disability.”

My point? Trump could have an off-the-scale case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Or he could simply be in possession of the “healthy dose” of narcissism that psychology professor Dan McAdams told the Toronto Star “most people running for high office must have.” Adams did go on to say that “It does seem to be the case that he’s kind of off the map,” but also said that he wouldn’t give him a mental health diagnosis.

Trump certainly has been described as a narcissist by many people, and this tendency appears to be accompanied by an inflated healthy self-esteem, a tendency to speak off the top of his head and behave erratically, and a strong dislike of admitting he’s wrong. Inappropriate trait for someone who wants to be President just on their own — why, asks David Perry, the need to further pathologize them? The insistence on doing so without evidence that it’s merited reinforces ideas that:

  1. If there’s something “off” about a person, they must be “crazy”
  2. A mental health diagnosis makes someone unstable and therefore unfit to hold political office (bullshit ableism)
  3. The stigma that continues to exist around having a mental health diagnosis is justified and even rational

Armchair Psychology is Dangerous -Especially During Election 2016

It kills me that I’ve spent over 15oo words talking about why Trump needs to be treated more fairly. But this isn’t merely about defending about Trump. *He* also needs to be called out for how he uses armchair psychology diatribes about Hilary’s mental instability. Questioning the mental stability of those who disagree with him is part of Trump’s modus operundi, as pointed out in Vanity Fair (from the preamble to the the results of Keith Olbermann’s afore-mentioned piece about Trump and psychopathy):

“Except that in his year of campaigning, Donald Trump has called Lindsey Graham “a nut job,” Glenn Beck “a real nut job,” and Bernie Sanders “a wacko.” Trump has insisted Ben Carson’s got a “pathological disease,” and asked of Barack Obama: “Is our president insane?” He called Ted Cruz “unstable,” “unhinged,” “a little bit of a maniac,” and “crazy or very dishonest.” He also called the entire CNBC network “crazy.” He called Megyn Kelly “crazy” — at least six times.”

Here are some recent comments from him attacking Clinton’s mental health status:

This armchair psychology needs to end. We also need to call out people like the speaker at the RNC who explicitly talked about Clinton being unstable (I wish I could remember who this was; I’ve tried to find the clip, but I can’t. Does anyone remember who I mean?) and individuals from the far, far right media crowd like Info War’s Alex Jones who have made “Hilary Clinton is crazy” a stock part of their message.

The campaigns, the media, and people who seek to influence voters need to work in the world of facts, not ableism and messages that contribute to stigma.

Because that really is bullshit.