Playing the Trump card

Bill Gall is disturbed by our coverage.

I was disturbed by the short news item in the March issue of The Psychologist about experts speculating on the mental health of Donald Trump. The Psychologist is straying dangerously close to tabloid tactics here: seemingly reproaching an individual or group for some wrongdoing as a backdoor means of publishing the very allegations it purports to condemn. In this case, US psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists have knowingly behaved unethically. They have suggested publicly that they have determined the President’s mental health status whilst never having had any contact with him; even so far as naming his condition. The article cites our own (BPS) President, Professor Peter Kinderman, who refers to this as ‘arm’s-length celebrity pseudo-diagnosis’ which is very apt. However, it is not helpful to our colleagues in mental health research or practice for Professor Kinderman to state – without further elaboration – that he is ‘sceptical of the validity of psychiatric diagnosis per se’.

The problem is that such unfounded speculation can then easily take on the appearance of fact – the more so if presented in a learned Society’s newsletter. Unfortunately, this plays directly into the hands of those who believe in ‘alternative facts’, are sceptical or even hostile towards ‘experts’ and the media and have been quick to criticise the publication of ‘fake news’ – fine if it is demonstrably fake. We apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ age but we should, first, be worried about the implications of that and, secondly, maintain our scientific integrity.

The article further quotes Professor Kinderman, in amongst some politically loaded phrases as follows: ‘We should not smear those of us struggling with psychological problems by association with people of the calibre of Donald Trump.’

Surely if we have any genuine concerns about the (US) President’s mental health, a more caring attitude is required. Is President Trump not allowed to have such conditions because it would somehow devalue the status of those who have been more properly and professionally diagnosed? Is everyone else with a mental health problem beyond reproach?

In a science-based discipline, it is acceptable to raise debate but not by resorting to emotive and inflammatory language. The Psychologist should not be used a platform to comment on, for example, a person’s ‘contemptible’ behaviour; particularly if that behaviour may be founded on a genuine psychological condition of the type many of our fellow members’ careers are dedicated to alleviating.

This letter is neither in support of nor in opposition to President Trump’s administration or recent rhetoric, but is a plea to maintain the highest standards of ethical and balanced reporting. I realise that the source material referred to is available for anyone to discover for themselves, but The Psychologist should, I feel, be more circumspect about relaying it without some considered comment about the breaches of professional conduct that are the core of the article. Publishing such material in this raw form, I feel, devalues our Society, profession and The Psychologist as a publication.

Bill Gall

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber