Another reputable psychiatrist, Richard A. Friedman, has joined the fray, taking the side that shrinks should not be opining on Donald Trump’s mental fitness. In an op-ed in the NY Times on-line, Friedman makes a strong case for why his professional colleagues should hold back.
Friedman is concerned that long-distance diagnosis is prone to abuse—professionals should not subject themselves to reasonable suspicion that they are allowing their political biases to influence their professional opinions. The fundamental problem is that “Diagnosis requires a thorough examination of a patient, a detailed history and all relevant clinical data — none of which can be gathered from afar.”
There undoubtedly will be more mental health professionals joining one or the other side of this argument. I’m not a mental health professional, so you might ask, where do I get off butting in? The simple answer is that I’m a citizen, one who cares about public affairs and who values whatever contributions professional expertise can make to my understanding of public affairs.
I think Friedman is wrong, even though he is not advocating complete silence by his fellow shrinks. He explains:
…[W]hile it would be unethical for a psychiatrist to say that President Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, he or she could discuss common narcissistic character traits, like grandiosity and intolerance of criticism, and how they might explain Mr. Trump’s behavior. In other words, psychiatrists can talk about the psychology and symptoms of narcissism in general, and the public is free to decide whether the information could apply to the individual.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but it isn’t.”
Sorry, but it is splitting hairs. Friedman is willing to tell me, a layman, all about narcissistic personality disorder and how it might explain Trump. He would then let me draw my own conclusion. But, as a layman, my very natural next question to him would be, ”Well what do you think about whether this explains Trump? I understand that you can’t make a proper diagnosis, but what conclusion would you draw, as a concerned citizen who understands these things so much better than most of us?” His response presumably would be “Sorry, I can’t say anything more.” That borders on the disingenuous.
The basic point is this: It is absurd to say that the mental fitness of the President of the United States is not an appropriate topic for public discussion. Friedman isn’t saying that. But if it is an appropriate topic for public discussion, it seems absurd to say that the most qualified contributors to that discussion can’t fully participate.
I fully understand and respect psychiatrists’ desire to protect their profession’s reputation for ethics and integrity. That reputation is valuable and important. But frankly, it is even more important for the people of the United States to understand the behavior of the man who is supposed to be running their country. I would respectfully urge mental health professionals to be guided by that order of priorities.