This election season has been atrocious when it comes to stigmatizing and ableist language in public political discourse. The Trump campaign has made insinuations about Hillary Clinton’s health, mental and physical, but more insidiously liberals have constantly felt free to publicly speculate about Donald Trump’s mental health.
Donald Trump is crazy, they say. He’s a lunatic. He needs therapy. He’s bonkers. He’s just plain nuts. He’s delusional. He’s psychotic. Speculation and armchair diagnoses are the norm. Liberals, who pride themselves on being progressive about things like race, gender, and sexuality, have a gargantuan blind spot when it comes to the subject of mental health and stigmatizing, ableist language.
My brother wrote a piece on Daily Kos addressing this issue. While there have been some good responses to his post, there has also been a lot of pushback. This pushback has come almost exclusively in two forms.
The first is that the person using the stigmatizing language is just speaking in the vernacular. The claim is that they are not really talking about mental illness, per se. They are simply using words that are commonly used as insults, and should be understood as such. Anyone taking offense, then, is just being sensitive. The person taking offense should know what the person using the stigmatizing language really means.
The inability to accept that using stigmatizing language causes real problems, given the deadly nature of the stigma surrounding mental illness, is lamentable but somewhat understandable. People who don’t live with mental illness have no real way of understanding the damage their stigmatizing language causes unless someone tells them. Often when people are told that they are doing something damaging their first response is to defend their words and actions by hiding behind their intentions. They didn’t mean any harm, therefore there shouldn’t be any harm. This refusal to take responsibility for words and actions is unfortunately normative. It’s just the way it is.
Ideally, upon being educated about the harm that they cause, the offending person would get past their initial defensive response, do some soul searching, and change their thoughts, speech, and actions accordingly. That’s the ideal. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it is the best that can reasonably be hoped for.
The second form of pushback is far more problematic. With this form of pushback the offending person declares that they are legitimately speculating about a public figure’s health and fitness for office. Often they will point to Trump’s behavior and say that it must be caused by mental illness. Generally the armchair diagnosis is something like Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There are a couple of issues with this “diagnosis”. The first is that the armchair psychiatrist is not, in fact, trained in any way to diagnose mental illness. The second is that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not even considered to be a mental illness, per the DSM-5. It is basically just a more “scientific” way of saying that someone is an asshole. And “asshole” isn’t a diagnosis, either.
The assertion that a mental illness would mean that Trump is unfit for office, as though his willful ignorance about science, foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy, and almost everything else, combined with his consistently unconscionable actions and words, are not enough to prove his lack of fitness for office, also implies that anyone with a mental illness would be unfit for office.
Historically this has been an issue. The most obvious example is George McGovern’s initial choice for vice president, Thomas Eagleton. In the “vetting” process it was discovered that Eagleton had at one point sought medical help for depression. This was seen as proof that he was unfit for office, and helped to tank McGovern’s candidacy.
If mental illness makes one unfit for office, I wonder what else it would make people unfit for. If we who live with mental illness are unfit for office, can we be trusted to vote? Can we be trusted with any kind of responsibility? Are we just damaged goods, broken people that aren’t fit for anything but to be pitied. That, or ridiculed.
This is the very worst kind of stigma. It implies that those of us living with mental illness can’t live full lives. It implies that we can’t experience recovery. It implies that we are simply broken people, and people who will remain broken.
In essence, it implies that we are less than fully human.
This is stigma at its worst. The person questioning Trump’s fitness for office because of mental illness would likely say that they don’t mean it that way. But that is hiding behind “intentions” again. It ignores the very real effect of stigma. After all, if a diagnosis would keep you from being able to live a full life, why would you even seek a diagnosis? Why would you want that albatross hanging around your neck?
Recovery is possible. You can lead a full life with mental illness, but only with a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. The kind of stigmatizing language that infects public discourse about Donald Trump works to prevent many people from seeking help. It prevents them from starting down the path towards recovery and locks them into a potentially deadly path. Mental illness, especially undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, kills.
Donald Trump isn’t mentally ill, he is just an asshole.
And stigma kills.
That can’t be said enough.