Perpetuation of stigmatizing, outdated stereotypes makes it harder for those experiencing mental illness to seek the treatment they need.
By Patrick J.Kennedy
Patrick J. Kennedy is the author, with Stephen Fried, of “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” He is the founder of The Kennedy Forum and a former Democratic member of Congress.
Is Donald Trump experiencing a mental illness? That’s the question making the rounds these days. The answer is: I don’t know. And neither do the commentators, tweeters and psychiatrists — both licensed and armchair — who’ve diagnosed him from afar as “crazy,” a “psychopath,” not “sane,” having “narcissistic personality disorder” and a “screw loose.”
What I do know is that we ought to stop casually throwing around terms like “crazy” in this campaign and our daily lives. The president of the American Psychiatric Association has said that even for professionals, these sorts of diagnoses, made from afar, are “unethical” and “irresponsible.” And they only serve to demean and undercut people.
“Crazy” is never uttered with compassion. I have never heard it used in the context of trying to get someone the treatment they need. When that language is commonplace, it becomes that much harder for those experiencing mental illness to openly seek treatment that works. It discriminates, in subtle and overt ways, and extends its reach into schools, workplaces and the health-care system, where we still don’t provide routine mental health exams. When we use that word the way we have, we perpetuate the dangerous, “separate and unequal” treatment of these illnesses, and continue to pretend that the brain isn’t part of the body.
With all of this damaging rhetoric floating around in our national political discourse, especially what we hear from and about Trump, it’s no wonder that people remain silent and the suffering continues. We alienate our friends and family members. We further separate ourselves from kids with ADHD, a colleague with anxiety, a neighbor with depression. It keeps people who have brain diseases, including substance use disorders, in the closet. We go against President John F. Kennedy’s declaration, in signing the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, that those with mental illnesses “need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”
So if you’ve got a criticism about Trump’s temperament, fine. But let’s eliminate the name-calling and grade-school bullying. As Michelle Obama put it, “When they go low, we go high.”
And believe me, I’m no Trump fan. There’s a lot to criticize about the policies, ideas and ideology of the Republican nominee. As a person, he lashes out with unnecessary cruelty, and his policies would drive our country into a lengthy recession. The result would be the loss of 3.5 million jobs, according to Mark Zandi, an economist who previously advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Clearly, stopping him from becoming president should be a high priority. He lives in a world divided by us and them, weak and strong, winners and losers. His grim vision for America is not one that I recognize or want for my children.
We can reject Trump without resorting to making baseless diagnoses of his mental health.
We’ve come a long way in this country in terms of the way we view mental health. Almost a half century ago, my uncle Sargent Shriver replaced Sen. Thomas Eagleton as a vice-presidential candidate when it was revealed he had been treated for depression. That wouldn’t happen today, I hope, because so many of us know friends and family members who have dealt with mental illness or addictions, but are high- functioning because they’ve sought and received the care they needed. Around the same time, his wife, my Aunt Eunice, started the Special Olympics and helped usher in a new day in which those with intellectual and developmental disabilities were no longer referred to as “retarded” and marginalized from the rest of society.
But we have more work to do to end discrimination. It starts with ensuring we don’t perpetuate stigmatizing, outdated and dangerous stereotypes. We need to elect policymakers who believe it’s right to treat diseases of the brain the same as illnesses of the body, like diabetes and heart disease. Calling people crazy doesn’t further that goal, and slows our efforts toward equality.
Patrick J. Kennedy is the author, with Stephen Fried, of “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” He is the founder of The Kennedy Forum and a former Democratic member of Congress. ! Follow @PJK4brainhealth