Psychologists and psychiatrists are generally advised to stay out of political debate. Weighing in on a candidate's mental health could undermine the integrity of the profession or further stigmatize mental illness. But for some in the field, there are moments when a break with convention is not only appropriate, but essential. Bill Doherty, a family therapist and psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, believes this election season is one of those moments.
He's created an online manifesto entitled "Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism," which has been signed by some 2,400 other mental health professionals. Doherty maintains he's not diagnosing Donald Trump the man, but rather condemning the threatening ideology that Trump represents. He talks with Bob about why he believes "Trumpism" is a public health risk, and what motivated him to speak out not just as a citizen, but as a therapist.
"Bird Song" by Bert Jansch
So, mental health professionals like Paul Applelbaum are wary of applying psychiatric labels to politicians from afar. But Bill Doherty, a therapist and Psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the integrity of the profession depends precisely on speaking out. He’s the creator of the online manifesto, Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism, which has thus far garnered more than 2400-some signatures from mental health specialists. Bill, welcome to On the Media.
BILL DOHERTY: Glad to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, how do you define Trumpism?
BILL DOHERTY: A political ideology and public stance that is characterized by a strong-man approach: Trust me, I will protect you against the enemies, domestic and foreign, against the other. It’s an appeal to fear without reason and it's a deeply undermining approach to the public mental health and to our democracy.
BOB GARFIELD: And why was it important for you to speak out against Donald J. Trump, not just as a voter and American but as a therapist?
BILL DOHERTY: Well, the origins of this was a trip I made to Eastern Europe where I saw neo-fascists, uniformed youth on the street. I visited a concentration camp. I toured Freud's house and saw videos of him fleeing Nazi Europe. And I began to look into this and realized that mental health professionals stayed silent during a very dramatic time in the history of the Western world. I saw the rise of Donald Trump and what he represents as on that continuum, a movement that undermines the public good, public mental health and our democracy. So I felt that this time, this time, mental health professional should not just stay in our offices and act as if the world is not threatening our clients.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, to do this, as we've just heard, you are flouting the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” which is to say it's unethical to make psychological diagnoses from a distance.
BILL DOHERTY: I am not making a psychiatric diagnosis of Donald Trump. I’m not doing anything that would require much more knowledge of his private life than we have. I'm focusing on the public presentation of Donald Trump and what he stands for. So I don't view myself as violating that rule.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm – well, that sounds a bit disingenuous. If Trumpism is a disorder, is not Trump disordered?
BILL DOHERTY: Well, I didn't call Trumpism as a disorder. I said it's a threat. It undermines our democracy and it undermines public mental health. Somebody could promote that without having a psychiatric label applied to them.
BOB GARFIELD: And many have, especially in the political and pundit classes. Why do believe that there is a responsibility on mental health professionals?
BILL DOHERTY: Well, I believe that all professional groups should speak out. I think educators should speak out, if they're seeing more bullying in the schools and more scapegoating of others. This is - happens to be my profession, and I think we have something to contribute to the public conversation. So, for example, Trump's apology last week for hurting people is a classic thing we see in our offices of the non-apology apology.
DONALD TRUMP: Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that.
BILL DOHERTY: Not taking accountability and not really understanding the harm done. I’m a marriage and family therapist. We see this all the time in my office. I think we should be part of the public conversation about these issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Did I understand you correctly, that you believe that Trumpism actually threatens the mental health of the entire country?
BILL DOHERTY: Well, it clearly is threatening the mental health of a number of the patients and clients that I see and my colleagues see who are immigrants. I’m hearing from therapists all the time. You know, there’s a term that I first heard in Latin America called “political stress,” personal pain, anxiety that comes from what's going on in the political sphere. So there are a lot of those folks who are experiencing that. Other minority groups, African-Americans I talk to, are worried. And middle-class people in our practices, certainly my practice, are saying, what the heck is going on with this world, that a man like this is representing a major political party? I’m not saying it is affecting the mental health of every last American, but this is a strong effect we’re seeing.
BOB GARFIELD: In Vox recently, Psychologist Cedar Riener pointed out that in labeling Trump with a psychiatric disorder - and that's happening a lot - we turn him into an anomaly and, as a consequence, depoliticize him. So which is worse, a presidential candidate who is off his rocker or one who is not mentally ill but going directly to the playbook of fascist demagogues?
BILL DOHERTY: Clearly, the second. This is why the manifesto is against Trumpism, because he represents something and is unleashing certain dark forces in our country. That’s happening in Europe, as well. He stands for something much bigger than a guy who is sort of crazy.
BOB GARFIELD: You have 2400-some signatures on your manifesto, which is not a trivial number, but there are, I don’t know, 100,000 people like you practicing clinical psychology. Are they mad, disappointed, what?
BILL DOHERTY: I have had some angry responses from some conservative therapists who believe that what I'm doing is simply a partisan political thing to get Hillary Clinton elected. And my response is that if Donald Trump were not running for president, I would not be writing a manifesto against Jeb Bush or any of the others in that group, that Donald Trump represents something different on our scene. This is different.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's just say you haven't broken the Goldwater Rule. If you squint hard enough, you haven’t, strictly speaking, made a diagnosis of a disorder that you think belongs in the DSM.
Do you believe, in general, in the Goldwater Rule, that it is a slippery slope when a mental health professional starts drawing conclusions from a politician’s public persona?
BILL DOHERTY: I have complicated thoughts about the Goldwater Rule. It serves an important purpose, in the sense of not encouraging mental health professionals to use diagnosis as weapons against politicians who they don't like for other reasons. It serves the purpose of not trivializing diagnosis.
I think it's been misused to silence the public voices of mental health professionals who need to be speaking out here. It's kind of like in your field of journalism, the objectivity norm, that there's this side and that side and nobody has an opinion about it. That works just as the Goldwater [Rule] works in normal times, but when there's a very threat to the fabric of our society and our democracy, we should not be bound to certain kinds of traditional norms that work in other circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill, thank you very much.
BILL DOHERTY: You’re welcome. It’s been my pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Bill Doherty is a family therapist, professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the online manifesto, Citizen Therapists Against Trump-ism.
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