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Why psychiatrists’ opinions about politicians shouldn’t matter



When it comes to political candidates and psychiatric disorders, the idea of diagnosing from afar is not new. In 1964, Fact magazine published an article called “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater.” For the article, more than 2,400 psychiatrists responded to a survey, and many described the presidential candidate using a host of diagnostic and symptomatic terms. Mr. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide and successfully sued the magazine for $75,000.

In 1973, nearly a decade later, the American Psychiatric Association specifically noted in its code of ethics that psychiatrists should not offer diagnostic opinions on anyone who has not been personally examined and has not signed the proper authorization for this information to be released. The edict has been informally called The Goldwater Rule.

Dr. Dinah Miller

Dr. Dinah Miller

In the current election cycle, it has been a challenge for some psychiatrists to refrain from making public statements about our presidential candidates. Some have said the Goldwater Rule amounts to a gag order, and that the specifics of this election are different from other elections, and might warrant allowing psychiatrists to issue their professional opinions. The APA has reminded psychiatrists that to do so is unethical, and on Aug. 15, The New York Times ran an article by Benedict Carey titled: “The Psychiatric Question: Is it Fair to Analyze Donald Trump from Afar?”

I want to look at the question from a different stance. In assessing our political candidates, I’d like you to consider this: What difference does it make? Psychiatric diagnostic criteria are determined by consensus opinions of APA workgroup members. They aren’t perfect; they aren’t always accurate even when a patient is evaluated in person and seen over time; they are influenced by culture; and they aren’t always prognostic. One person’s experience of bipolar disorder is not another person’s experience of bipolar disorder, and personality disorders – such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder – don’t have uniform presentations or outcomes. Some people with these difficulties head corporations and nations, while others wilt in prisons.

Half of the population will suffer from an episode of psychiatric illness at some point in their lives, and one in five people is affected in any given year. While we might all agree that many psychiatric symptoms are not compatible with being president, should the fact that a candidate has had a distant episode of mental illness, either fully resolved or controlled with treatment, disqualify him or her from holding office?

In an article published in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Jonathan R. Davidson, MD; Kathryn M. Connor, MD; and Marvin Swartz, MD, looked at the biographical data on U.S. presidents from 1776 to 1974 and concluded that 49% met criteria for an Axis I psychiatric disorder. During those cycles, 27% had psychiatric difficulties while in office. Our presidents have suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety and alcoholism (J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006 Jan;194[1]47-51). No one has publicly attempted to tally personality disorders or use of other addictive substances. It may be safe to say that if the existence of psychiatric pathology had always been a disqualifier for public office, we’d live in a very different country.

Hopefully, when we approach our patients, we do so with warmth, kindness, and a genuine desire to help them heal. Psychiatry, at its best, is about intimacy and trust, and it is in that venue that people share their inner worlds and allow themselves to be vulnerable. Compassion is part of the deal; no one wants to have a mental illness. To refer to an unknown celebrity as “schizophrenic,” “psychotic,” or “having a godlike self-image” – or calling him “a dangerous lunatic,” as Sen. Goldwater was called – is not about careful diagnosis and compassion; it’s simply about name calling. To say that a politician or celebrity’s undesirable behavior is the result of a psychiatric illness based on cavalier observation is an insult to our patients, and it perpetuates stigma.

Psychiatric diagnoses are made by observing a constellation of symptoms that occur together. Mr. Trump has given the whole world years of data – he’s lived his life in a very public way. As a real estate developer, he has had countless employees who all know how they’ve been treated. We’ve seen him through three marriages and watched how he interacts with his children. We’ve seen him take out full-page ads calling for the death penalty for a group of young men who were wrongly convicted in the rape and assault of the Central Park jogger in 1988. If that’s not enough, he has hosted his own reality television show, and we’ve now seen him countless times in debates and rallies. We know how he treats his running mates, journalist Megyn Kelly, a news reporter with a disability, and the parents of a fallen soldier. We’ve watched him assure the nation during a primary debate that his genitals are big enough. Every individual is free to decide if Mr. Trump’s widely viewed patterns of behavior represent much-needed spunk and change with political beliefs that align with their own, or if his words and behaviors represent cruelty, impulsivity, poor judgment, and a pattern of actions that some might not feel is dignified enough for our country’s leader. No degree is required to observe and draw conclusions.


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