Alanna Berger: Keep mental illness out of your criticism

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 2:58pm

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Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., found herself under criticism for laughing and responding “well said” to a voter’s question in which they referred to President Donald Trump’s actions as “mentally retarded.” Harris has since apologized, stating that she had not heard these specific comments and “that word and others like it aren't acceptable. Ever.” Despite the apology, this moment reveals a larger societal issue at hand: the widespread use of terms relating to mental illness to discredit an opponent or to otherwise put others down. 

In their criticisms of Trump, many of his detractors have levied accusations of mental illness against him. The left-leaning political website Vox referred to him as crazy in a headline, while sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann has referred to the president as a psychopath on Twitter. Some have even gone as far as to diagnose him with different psychological disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder and dementia. These comments continue to be made, despite the absence of any legitimate medical diagnosis made public by the Trump administration. 

Criticism directed towards an individual’s actions on the basis of a mental illness is not unfounded. Indeed, Trump has engaged in many questionable, damaging and puzzling behaviors. However, unsubstantiated claims of mental illness are harmful to greater society as a whole. Regardless of how one feels about the president and his actions, allegations of mental illness and uninformed “diagnoses” of different disorders perpetuate the stigma of those living with legitimate mental illnesses. The use of terms like “crazy,” “insane” or “psychopath” to discredit someone’s professional capacities perpetuate the idea that people with mental illnesses are incompetent, dangerous, unstable or weak. This stigma is ubiquitous in American society. When typically well-respected figures such as politicians or journalists levy mental illness accusations to discredit an opponent, the stigma is just enabled to spread farther and become more deeply ingrained. Out of fear of being labeled as crazy, some mentally ill Americans do not seek treatment for their disorders. This trend goes on to worsen the suffering and persistence of symptoms associated with mental health.

Whenever a critic calls upon a mental diagnosis to invalidate President Trump’s actions, they are perpetuating the stigma that those with mental illnesses are individuals less capable of leading productive lives and are a threat to society. In fact, Dr. Allen Francis, the former head of Duke University’s Psychiatry Department, appeared on CNN to denounce the misuse of psychological terms as criticisms of behavior.  He said that the combination of accusations of mental illness and politics can have dire consequences for the general public, mainly because it stigmatizes the mentally ill, who are often “well-behaved, well-mannered, and good people.” Moreover, he stated that “lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems and stigma as it is.” In their efforts to criticize political strategies and policies they do not agree with, these individuals are unintentionally targeting the millions of Americans living with a mental illness.

The pejorative use of mental illnesses and terms associated with them extends far beyond the Trump administration. American psychiatrists are governed by The Goldwater Rule, barring them from providing their opinion on the mental state of individuals they have not personally evaluated under their own medical care. The rule itself stems from a 1964 libel suit by Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., against a magazine. The magazine had printed an opinion compiled by more than 1,000 psychiatrists stating that Senator Goldwater was mentally unfit for office. Though this particular case is over 50 years old, the American Psychiatric Association maintains it is still relevant today. This practice is not in place solely to avoid lawsuits. Psychiatrists worry that frequent unsubstantiated claims of mental illness without any physical evidence will undermine their profession, making clients with legitimate diagnoses of mental disorders less likely to trust them for medical treatment. The cavalier usage of medical terms pertaining to mental illness cheapens the daily struggle faced by the mentally ill and in turn delegitimizes the treatment process. By doing so, patients who already deal with the often isolating effects of mental illness furthermore feel as though they have no resources to help them deal with such issues. 

Beyond the realm of politics, the colloquial use of mental illness in vocabulary continues to have harmful effects. Many psychological disorders have entered the common vernacular as nouns to describe different unusual behaviors or idiosyncrasies in individuals. Instances such as referring to a propensity for neatness as “OCD,” changes in demeanor as “bipolar” or an occasional inability to concentrate as “ADHD” are very common. While it is unlikely that people use these terms to intentionally diminish the very real symptoms of mental illness, language is integral to shaping how we understand the world. Whether it is high-profile politicians seemingly condoning the use of slurs against people with disabilities, criticisms of the president or simple everyday conversation, using mental illnesses in a casual manner hurts everyone, most importantly those struggling with such disorders themselves. 

Alanna Berger can be reached at balanna@umich.edu.