Mondli Makhanya

Don’t insult the mentally ill

2017-02-19 00:02
US President elect Donald Trump  (AP File)

US President elect Donald Trump (AP File)

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Mondli Makhanya

It has only been a month since Donald Trump took over as president of the US, and already one of the biggest talking points in his country is whether he is fine upstairs.

Discussions about the property mogul’s mental state have moved from the jocular to the serious. Psychiatrists, including top mental illness experts, have waded in on the subject. Most have done so anonymously as it is considered a violation of ethics to diagnose someone without having examined them. There is at least one petition calling for Trump to be medically examined to establish whether he is mentally fit to hold office.

This week, Allen Frances – one of America’s most respected psychiatrists – came to the defence of the mentally ill, saying it was unfair to compare them with Trump. Frances was intimately involved with the expert panels that drew up several versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM), which is now in its fifth edition. The DSM defines mental disorders, the methodology of diagnosis and the manner of treatment.

Writing in the New York Times, Frances said it was “a stigmatising insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr Trump (who is neither)”.

Frances said that, although Trump possessed some of the traits of narcissistic personality disorder – such as “a grandiose sense of self-importance; arrogant behaviour; carrying on with a sense of entitlement; and needing regular praise and admiration” – this did not mean he had the condition.

“He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder,” he said.

He contradicted some of his own colleagues, including clinical psychologist Julie Futrell, who recently told New York Daily News that Trump exhibited signs of “malignant narcissism”.

“Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality,” said Futrell.

Frances’ view is not held by laypeople, including members of Congress and the Senate. Minnesota Senator Al Franken recently told CNN that Republicans had confided that they were worried about their man’s mental stability. He said that, behind closed doors, “there’s a range in what they’ll say, and some will say that he’s not right mentally ... and then some are harsher”.

Much of the worry, he said, stemmed from the fact that “he lies a lot ... says things that aren’t true”.

“You know, that is not the norm for a president of the US, or, actually, for a human being,” said Franken.

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who is chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told the Washington Post’s editorial board last month that it would not be a bad idea for presidential candidates to subject themselves to independent medical examinations, which would include mental health tests. Although he was quick to point out that he was not necessarily referring to Trump, everyone got the message.

“If you’re going to have your hands on the nuclear codes, you should probably know what kind of mental state you’re in,” he said.

And therein lies the rub. The world has many eccentric leaders, some of whom seem distinctly unhinged. Think of the Philippines’ executioner President Rodrigo Duterte, who openly confesses to having ridden around on a motorbike shooting suspected criminals dead and throwing suspects out of helicopters in his earlier years in politics.

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro hosts an off-the-wall weekly radio show during which he bursts into crazy songs. Closer to home, you have the senile President Robert Mugabe, who looks as vacant as a parking lot at midnight. Never mind the randy monarch next door, who is not satisfied with the 14 women he permanently has at his disposal. In North Korea, you have the excitable Kim Jong-un, who also, unfortunately, has access to some dangerous weapons.

Since Trump took over, the main concern has been about the fact that a superpower is in the hands of a madman. That concern is indeed valid. But the concern should apply equally to the madmen who run other countries. The fact is that they endanger the livelihoods of their people and their neighbouring countries just as much as Trump might. The point is that nobody, even the citizens of the most impoverished states, deserves to be ruled by a lunatic.

What does set Trump apart from the rest of the lunatics is that his decisions affect the whole world. When government, regulators or institutions of G8 countries make decisions, the ripples go far and wide. So when the leader of one of those countries is the sort of individual who could set off a fireworks display in the kitchen, you know we are all in trouble.

There is no doubt the early phase of the Trump presidency is going to be great fun in the humour department. The late-night show hosts, the comedians and the cartoonists are having a field day. The media has an endless stream of news. But soon, the laughter will turn to despair as he wreaks havoc on the world. Scary times lie ahead.

Read more on:    donald trump  |  us  |  health
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