Psychologists and Donald Trump

Ella Rhodes and Jon Sutton report.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are speaking out about Donald Trump’s potential mental health issues in an unprecedented move, which they say is for the good of the public and their own professional integrity. However, others argue this type of labelling increases stigma towards mental health issues and actually reduces professional integrity.

Since the introduction of the so-called Goldwater Rule it has been considered unethical to give diagnoses without having met and assessed an individual. This rule emerged in the 60s after Fact magazine published an article about Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, entitled '1,189 Psychiatrists say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!'. As a consequence, the American Psychiatric Association later added a rule to its code of ethics preventing psychiatrists from giving a professional opinion on a person’s mental health unless they had examined that person and received their consent to discuss a diagnosis or assessment. 

As Gersh Kuntzman wrote in New York’s Daily News a number of experts have become so concerned about Trump they are willing to face reprisals from their organisations for breaking such rules, including Psychotherapist John D Gartner. The John’s Hopkins Professor has said Trump displays signs of 'malignant narcissism', also reportedly stating: ‘Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being President.’ 

Following the election thousands of mental health professionals formed an allegiance called 'Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism', which quickly released a manifesto to warn America about its leader's apparent psychosis. It said: ‘We cannot remain silent as we witness the rise of an American form of fascism.’ It also points to some of Trump’s psychological warning signs: ‘Scapegoating ..., degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics, fostering a cult of the Strong Man who appeals to fear and anger, promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him, reinvents history and has little concern for truth (and) sees no need for rational persuasion.’

Kuntzman also spoke to Dr Julie Futrell, a clinical psychologist who has never treated Trump, but who said: ‘Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality… So you can't use logic to persuade someone like that. Three million women marching? Doesn't move him. Advisers point out that a policy choice didn't work? He won't care. The maintenance of self-identity is the organizing principle of life for those who fall toward the pathological end of the narcissistic spectrum.’

After listing the symptoms associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, including a grandiose sense of self-importance, requiring excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, Kuntzman wrote: ‘So boil it all down: We have a President who only believes something is true if it praises him. Everything else is fake news to him. Psychologists know what that is: It's a dangerous, pathological detachment from reality.’  

However not all psychologists and psychiatrists approve of diagnosing Trump from afar. Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said: ‘Speculating on the mental health of well-known public figures such as Donald Trump is usually facile and stating the obvious, unless it’s based on real, serious, and inside information.’ He added: ‘We want to be positioned in the public mind as being a calm, authoritative voice, and speculating on the mental health of celebs does exactly the opposite.’ 

Professor Peter Kinderman, President of the British Psychological Society, said: 'Trump should be judged, and condemned, as any other politician would be, on his political decisions. Attempting to use a diagnostic approach to understand and confront President Trump is wrong on many levels. I am sceptical of the validity of psychiatric diagnosis per se, and I agree with those colleagues who condemn arms-length celebrity pseudo-diagnosis. But I'd go further. We should not smear those of us struggling with psychological problems by association with people of the calibre of Donald Trump. There is nothing contemptible about problems that lead to the use of diagnostic labels in our work in mental health. There is a lot contemptible in Donald Trump's behaviour, and the two issues should be kept entirely separate.'

In other developments, MarketWatch reports that psychologists are 'poised to get rich' under Trump. Social psychologists Alexander Haslam and Steve Reicher, whose prophetic analysis of Trump's popularity is well worth a read, wrote a new blog on how Trump is probably driving recruits to ISIS. And psychologist Adrian Owen offered financial support to academics boycotting US conferences due to Trump's travel ban – an order which more than 150 scientific organisations and institutions have called on the President to rescind.

In terms of The Psychologist's own coverage, in the wake of Trump's election triumph we had some response, but perhaps not as much as expected; see also Sophie Scott's 'That joke isn't funny anymore'. (Although we do recommend 'Trump draws').

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