Some Arguments Against Calling Trump ‘Crazy’ Do Added Harm

When the #DiagnoseTrump hashtag began trending recently, I immediately cringed.

The hashtag was tied to a Change.org petition (which I’m purposefully not linking to here) that called on mental health professionals to officially label Donald Trump with “Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)” — and it was, not surprisingly, loaded with stigmatizing language . . . plus a sprinkle of lip service to those of us with actual diagnosed mental illness(es).

As the petition put it:

“It is entirely possible that some individuals with NPD can successfully function in many careers, but not the Presidency of the United States. We deserve to have the greatest understanding of Mr. Trump’s mental health status before we head to the polls on November 8th, 2016. #DiagnoseTrump”

Aw, good to know you don’t consider people with a diagnosis to be completely useless!

Considering my negative reaction to this ableist #DiagnoseTrump effort, I initially appreciated seeing my “#ReplaceCrazyWith The Adjective You Actually Mean” essay applied to the pushback against it. In that essay, I wrote, “Every time I said crazy when I meant awful, ridiculous, or ignorant, I was contributing to a stigma.”

But instead of the essay being shared and discussed in order to question this stigmatizing language, it was distilled into an equally insidious suggestion: that calling Trump “crazy” or “insane” is “too easy” and “lets him off the hook.”

I get what people are trying to do when they say these things; they’re attempting to alleviate noxious, harmful labels from our cultural vernacular while holding Trump accountable for his abhorrent actions — and I really appreciate that effort.

But the fact is that this rhetoric, too, fuels mental illness stigma.

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Plenty of people seem to understand the danger of labeling Trump officially — whether or not the diagnosis the Change.org petitioner has laid out is on the money. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has even called for its expert members to refrain from discussing the mental health of Trump — or, presumably, anyone else associated with this election. As APA president Maria A. Oquendo, M.D., said:

“This year, the election seems like anything but a normal contest, that has at times devolved into outright vitriol. The unique atmosphere of this year’s election cycle may lead some to want to psychoanalyze the candidates, but to do so would not only be unethical, it would be irresponsible.”

The experts understand that mental illness is a common, but often serious condition — either temporarily or ongoing. Sometimes it’s debilitating; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it precludes people from having certain jobs (e.g. I’ll never be a teacher because the level of engagement conflicts with my anxiety); sometimes it’s merely an occasional inconvenience for the person dealing with it.

But despite the many nuances involved in diagnosis, I have never heard someone with a mental illness describe their condition as an “easy” anything. It’s not an easy excuse, it’s not an easy out, it’s not an easy public label, it’s not easy to access treatment. Which makes comments like “We shouldn’t let him have it easy!” when it comes to calling Trump “crazy” enraging.

The phrase “letting him off the hook” and others like it are also problematic. Consider what this expression means for a moment. Letting someone off the hook is something we do to absolve people of previous bad behavior. Having a mental illness is not bad behavior in need of absolution. It is also not an excuse for bad behavior, as anyone who has gone around apologizing following a rough patch will tell you.

I am currently diagnosed with (among other things) generalized anxiety disorder, persistent depressive disorder (formerly known as dysthymia), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — all of which affect my life and at times create significant hurdles in my personal and professional worlds. They do not, however, affect or inform who I am as a person.

Right and wrong are no different for me during a major depressive episode or panic attack than they are on an ordinary day. My anxiety doesn’t cause me to spew racist rants or spark movements to bar entire nationalities, ethnicities, or religious groups from our country. Similarly, my PTSD may occasionally give me emotional “hangovers” paired with physical exhaustion from nightmares, but it doesn’t prompt me to publicly threaten the possible judicial appointments of the next president of the United States.

Last I checked, sexism and racism were not diagnosable mental illnesses.

As Aaron Kappel so accurately put it here recently, when it comes to the effect of your words, “No, your intentions do not matter.” Of course I care about your intentions and am — despite several years of being a woman on the internet with opinions, thus inviting all manner of “critique” — inclined to assume the best of people. That inclination is why this particular ableism is so deflating. I am seeing people who think they’re helping doing great harm; it is my hope that once they know, they will understand and do the work to be allies.

If this all sounds to you like splitting hairs or the rantings of someone determined to alienate would-be allies by demanding perfection, you’re exactly the person who needs to pause and sit with the discomfort you’re feeling about my words. Sit and reread them; get even more uncomfortable. Now, imagine that discomfort is being caused by words you see everywhere describing a part of yourself that you can’t change. That’s what this election has been like for a number of marginalized groups, including the mentally ill.

If you can read this honest expression and polite request to alter your word choice to a more accurate word or phrase from someone who is part of one of those marginalized groups and yet choose to close the tab rather than have to feel some minor discomfort, you are not an ally. That is the definition of privilege: being able to opt-out of feeling discomfort or empathy for a particular group. Being an ally begins with a willingness to sit with that anxious, defensive feeling and stare it down until you can nod and breathe and understand that what’s being asked of you is minor compared to the comfort this change will bring to others.

By the time this election is over, we will all be exhausted. Those of us who imbibe are already over budget for the stretch between convention season and November 8. We’re all planning time off of politics and news, and some of us are desperately looking for a way to take vacations. Let us — for this intolerably long next three months — do at least the minimum to support each other and work to reduce the harm of our rhetoric.

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Lead image: flickr/Gage Skidmore