Once again, though it seems like the times they are a-changing, someone is calling for his professional colleagues to stick to their profession’s ethical guidelines.
A psychiatrist who literally wrote the definition and diagnostic criteria for one of the many mental health disorders our current president is accused of having has pointedly asked armchair diagnosticians to knock it off.
Physicians and psychiatrists have always, rightly, been leery of diagnosing people whom they have not examined.
And they have always, rightly, been leery of publicly speculating on the medical or psychiatric conditions of public figures.
There are a dozen or more reasons for this hesitancy, but none more appropriate here than the power of mental health labels.
A label that includes a mental health or cognitive component profoundly alters its wearer’s relationship with the world.
Mental illness and cognitive impairment have been used to justify abuse, neglect, isolation, medical assault, and murder; sadly, these abuses have been authorized by, facilitated by, or carried out by the very medical professionals who should have been helping their patients.
The labels stigmatize their wearers, as well. Think of all the insulting words that have or used to have precise medical meanings but are now (also) mere insults.
I’ve heard all of these words used in the last week alone, as insults to people for whom the (obsolete) medical terminology was completely inappropriate.
A just and appropriate horror of the potential for (and history of) abuse has led mental health professionals to certain self-imposed restrictions, among them the disinclination for long-distance diagnosing or encouraging public humiliation of a supposedly mentally ill figure.
Now is not the time to do away with those professional standards. It would be especially troubling to use psychiatric labels to discredit or remove our political threats. We’ve been down that road before. It doesn’t go anywhere we want to revisit.
Whatever the solution to our current political troubles, I think Dr. Frances is right that our approach must be political.
It will not do to remove an incompetent or dangerous political figure by slapping a psychiatric label on him, if for no other reason than that people who genuinely suffer from mental health disorders deserve better.