One of the strongest themes in this election cycle is the public outcry of injustice against our most vulnerable citizens, but I believe that in many ways, individuals of mental illness have been silent victims in this election cycle.
The mental health of the major candidates running for office is frequently challenged. Political commentators will provide, despite their wanting knowledge of the latest DSM, a vast array of diagnoses for the mental health of our candidates running for office. Each week, dozens of opinion writers, talk show hosts, and political pundits will refer to these candidates with a diverse palette of insults historically directed at the mentally ill: “Maniac,” “Narcissist,” “Sociopath,” “Psychopath,” “Crazy,” “Nut,” “Lunatic,” “Madman”…the list goes on.
Maybe Trump and Clinton do have mental illnesses, but I would wager that most of us are not practicing psychiatrists who are qualified to provide sound diagnosis of our candidates’ mental health. Their conduct in public does not sufficiently prove anything about their mental health. So why then, in a time when we are beginning to uncover just how severe our mental health crisis is both nationally and on college campuses, are we so liberal in our diagnoses of our candidates?
No doubt, this has been a long standing and normalized tradition in American politics and I suspect the tradition is much older than that. Today, our understanding of mental health has certainly progressed and the stigmas around talking about mental health are slowly being peeled away. However, political journalists and commentators uphold these stigmas by using words like “hysterical” and “crazy” to undermine candidates. This reinforces the stigma around mental health, and make it harder for people with mental illnesses to seek help.
Furthermore, it reinforces the notion that people who have mental illnesses are somehow unqualified to run for public office or strive for positions of leadership in our government, community and businesses. One example: using the phrase “maniac” to denigrate the leadership qualities of either candidate doesn’t shame the candidates, it shames the people who quietly suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Trump’s strong authoritarian notes do not make him a lunatic, Hillary Clinton’s shrewd political maneuvering does not make her a sociopath, and Gary Johnson’s failure to immediately recall what Aleppo is does not mean he has dementia. We can’t change how people talk about mental illness on prime-time news, but we can make small changes in our own lives and pay more respect to our peers by refraining from using the DSM as a thesaurus when talking about political candidates.
I encourage each and every Lawrentian to think critically about their descriptive choices this election cycle in the hopes that we can create a more welcoming and open space in which mental health can be discussed without fear and reservation, as well encourage the use of our counseling services to their fullest potential.