Why psychiatrists should stop diagnosing presidential candidates

The New York Times and NPR recently published articles related to the Goldwater Rule. In short, a magazine sent a survey to over 12,000 psychiatrists in the U.S. with the single question of whether they thought presidential nominee Mr. Barry Goldwater was fit to serve as president. Few psychiatrists responded. Of those that did, more than half — still over 1,000 — said that he was not. Mr. Goldwater ended up losing the presidential race, but he sued the magazine over this … and he won. Thus, the American Psychiatric Association has advised that psychiatrists should not diagnose public figures with psychiatric conditions. Some psychiatrists have felt otherwise for the current presidential election.

There is a hypothetical concept in psychiatry called the “identified patient“. It is most often applied in family systems. For example, consider a family that consists of a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter. The parents bring the daughter to a psychiatrist and say that she has worrisome symptoms. Maybe they say that she is always angry, doesn’t get along with anyone in the family, and does everything to stay out of the house. The parents and the son argue that there must be something wrong with her.

As the psychiatrist works with the family, the psychiatrist learns that the parents have the most conflict. The daughter may have developed ways to cope with this stress in ways that the parents don’t like. Because the parents have the most authority in this system and do not recognize how their conflicts are affecting everyone else, they assume that the daughter is the problem. To oversimplify it, the daughter becomes the scapegoat. The daughter is the identified patient.

Presidential nominees don’t become nominees through sheer will. There is a system in place — putting aside for now whether we think the system is effective or useful — where the American public has some influence in who becomes the ultimate nominee. Candidates are eliminated through this process.

Does the presidential nominee actually have psychopathology? Could a nominee rather reflect the public that supports him or her? Could it be more accurate to describe the nominee for a specific party as the “identified patient”?

Erving Goffman presents an argument in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that has similarities with the monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts

Goffman and Shakespeare are both commenting on the presence and importance of performance in our daily lives. Goffman argues in his text that context matters. (Which I agree with.) We all do things within our power to alter ourselves and the contexts to present ourselves in certain ways.

Some mental health professionals have argued that we can diagnose public figures with psychiatric conditions because of “unfiltered” sources like social media. While it may be true that some people are more “real” (or perhaps just more “disinhibited”) on social media than others, that does not mean that people are revealing their “true selves.” Do you think that people are always eating colorful vegetables in pleasing arrangements? Or that people are always saying hateful things, even while waiting to buy groceries, attending a church service, or folding laundry? Or that their cats are always cute and adorable, that hairballs and rank breath have never exited their mouths?

Lastly, the primary purpose of diagnosis is to guide treatment. There is no point in considering diagnoses for someone if you’re not going to do anything to help that person.

People have commented that psychiatric diagnoses often become perjorative labels. Unfortunately, there are those who work in psychiatry who will use psychiatric diagnoses as shorthand to describe behavior they don’t like. Instead of saying, “I feel angry when I see her; I don’t like her,” they will instead say, “She’s such a borderline.” That’s unfair and often cruel. If you’re not going to do anything to help improve her symptoms of borderline personality disorder, then why describe her that way? (We’ll also put aside that such a sentence construction reduces her to a diagnosis, rather than giving her the dignity of being a person.) If we are serious about addressing stigma or sanism, then we should only use diagnosis when we intend to help someone with that diagnosis.

I agree with the Goldwater Rule, though not because of the exhortations of the American Psychiatric Association. Diagnosis should have a specific purpose. We often do not have enough information about public figures across different contexts to give confident diagnoses. Presidential nominees are often appealing to various audiences, which can both affect and shape their behaviors. Most importantly, giving a diagnosis to a public figure without any intention of helping that person doesn’t help anyone, especially those who would ultimately benefit from psychiatric services.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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