There’s a flurry of posts and articles swirling around calling Donald Trump mentally ill, speculating on various disorders he might have or outright diagnosing him: sociopath; narcissist; oppositional defiant disorder. While it’s clear that he’s temperamentally unfit for the presidency, I think we need to be aware of how accusing Trump of being mentally ill is making things much worse for people who are already really vulnerable and who Trump’s administration is only going to make more so: those with so-called ‘mental illness.’
Trump has certainly gotten a lot of press for his ‘unusual’ personality profile and I will acknowledge that there are mental-health professionals who are (or will be) against Trump for psychological reasons. And I agree that having the person in charge of the country be exceptionally skilled at gaslighting but unable to keep from lashing out every time he feels vulnerable is a recipe for widespread trauma. But, given the combination of sensationalist media with the lack of interest in research and taking care to form opinions beyond simply the right to state them that characterize the general public, I’m not sure there’s a way to talk about Trump’s possible mental illness carefully enough to avoid further entrenching stigma. Those who support Trump already will dismiss any honest attempt to reckon with his “unconventional” (and extremely dangerous for someone in power) qualities outright. Those who already oppose him will agree with the assessments of his unwellness. And the pernicious idea that people with mental illness are dangerous, selfish and unstable and unfit for leadership or public office will persist.
That’s how stigma works. Unconsciously. People may not be aware of the dots they’re connecting – Trump is mentally ill –> he is unfit to be president –> he is unfit to be president because he is mentally ill –> we “already know” people with mental illness are dangerous and this reinforces that –> people with mental illness should not hold public office…etc. There is already a huge problem not only with discrimination but with forced treatment laws, the chemical straight jackets that are psychoactive “medications” and the abysmal state of mental healthcare in this country. But it gets even worse. Our unconscious mind practically runs our life. You are making connections between Trump’s particular mental illness – which happens to be extremely dangerous when combined with lots of power – and all mental illnesses, even though people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators (especially if you include what we’re calling “treatment” these days).
Talking about Trump and mental illness is, unfortunately, equating Trump with mental illness because there is already such a deep, visceral-level stigma against mental illness. And this puts already vulnerable people at risk. We already have a torture system we’re calling mental healthcare and many laws have passed recently on state and federal levels to make it that much easier to involuntarily commit people to that treatment. Almost everyone who isn’t a straight, cis, white, wealthy male will be a lot more unsafe under the incoming administration, not just because Trump is a womanizing, homophobic, Islamophobic narcissist who has no shame and is accountable to no one, not even himself. But also, his ascendency to the highest office in the country has legitimized the expressions of long-repressed hatred and bigotry. People with mental illness have fewer legal rights, fewer advocates, weaker support systems and far fewer options for appropriate and actually helpful care than people without mental illness.
And they have no friend in the Trump administration. So I think it’s a distraction to debate whether or not Trump is mentally ill. We need instead to be spending our energy resisting and organizing to protect those his election has painted targets on the backs of, including those with mental illness (usually left off the list of people – women, minorities, those with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community – he’s insulted or traumatized). If he is mentally ill, don’t count on him to be empathetic in any way…which isn’t what people who voted for him want, anyway. They want a schoolyard bully who will pick fights until he gets what America thinks it wants. To quote a friend quoting a friend, Trump’s problem isn’t that he’s mentally ill, it’s that he’s an asshole. And that’s about to become our problem, too.