Social media is atwitter this week with murmurs and questions about whether President Trump has lost his marbles.
Much of this whispering can be attributed to a Politico article that reported Democratic members of Congress summoned a Yale University psychiatry professor to Capitol Hill in December to discuss the president’s mental health.
The professor, Dr. Bandy X. Lee, told lawmakers at the time that, “[Trump’s] going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”
We’re doing this again? It looks like we’re doing this again.
Once more: Mental health professionals should never perform armchair analyses of persons with whom they've never met to conduct an in-person evaluation.
We're not alone in holding this opinion. It is the long-held position of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association that it is both unethical and extremely irresponsible for mental health experts to render professional verdicts based only on casual observation.
There’s a backstory to this rule, as we recounted in October of last year.
The short of it is this: A 1964 survey of psychiatrists found that half of its respondents believed GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was mentally unfit to be president.
They called him a "dangerous lunatic," "paranoid," a "counterfeit figure of a masculine man,” and so on.
Goldwater went on to lose the election, but he won his defamation lawsuit against the now-defunct Fact magazine, which published the psychiatrist survey. The American Psychiatric Association's president called the entire incident a "very public ethical misstep," and the group moved to institute a code, known as the Goldwater Rule, saying that psychiatrists are to refrain from offering long-distance diagnoses.
This is a good rule that guards against a lot of bad.
First, armchair analyses are just plain, old sloppy. It is impossible to judge a person’s mental wellbeing from just news clippings and soundbites. A first-hand assessment versus a conclusion derived from secondhand information is the difference between a trained mental health professional and a malicious gossip queen. One can speculate, sure. But dispensing rulings, or even hinting at one, when one hasn’t even spoken with the subject – and doing it all from a position of medical expertise – is dangerous and, well, sloppy.
Secondly, armchair analyses are dangerous. They further stigmatize the entire issue of mental wellbeing. It is difficult enough for those who struggle internally to seek help. Seeing self-declared professionals slap the “unwell” label on someone who talks funny and behaves peculiarly – without having actually diagnosed the person they’re condemning – will only drive the afflicted further underground.
Long-distance “diagnoses” are not merely unprofessional and based on lousily collected data. They have the potential to do real harm to the mentally disturbed.
Lee doesn’t seem to care about any of this. For her, Trump is an exception. She even released a statement Wednesday after the president tweeted about North Korea, condemning his mental fitness.
“We write as mental health professionals who have been deeply concerned about Donald Trump’s psychological aberrations,” read the statement, which was co-authored by two other mental health professionals.
It added, “We believe that he is now further unraveling in ways that contribute to his belligerent nuclear threats. ... We urge that those around him, and our elected representatives in general, take urgent steps to restrain his behavior and head off the potential nuclear catastrophe that endangers not only Korea and the United States but all of humankind.”
Oh, one last thing: The statement was published on behalf of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts, according to Politico. It was also signed by more than 100 medical professionals.
Once more, for emphasis: You should not trust armchair mental health analyses, nor should you trust the people making them.
Perhaps you think we’re getting hung up on the niceties of polite society. Not really. We merely agree with the American Psychiatric Association’s position that this sort of “analysis” is unethical and irresponsible. Moreover, we believe that medical expertise shouldn’t be used as a weapon against political opponents. That’s a dangerous road we don’t want to take. Trump’s not-normal presidency is no excuse for the normalization of this sort of behavior.
So let’s not normalize it.