The language is insensitive–even incendiary: crazy, sicko, repeatedly pressing for more mental institutions like “the old days.”
The comments–and their innuendos–divide–and, in the process, further stigmatize mental health.
But, sadly, this isn’t the commentary of your crazy uncle at those dreaded family reunions; instead, these are the comments of Donald J. Trump. That would be President Trump.
For the Donald, mental health is a plague–something that needs to be confined. Even quarantined. He routinely conflates mental illness and violence–perpetuating the false narrative that violence and mental illness are intertwined.
When he isn’t peddling this false narrative, he is advocating for the return of mental health institutions. “You know, in the old days we had mental institutions. We had a lot of them. And you could nab someone like this, because they…knew something was off. You had to know that. People were calling all over the place,” the Donald informed/lectured.
Donald–a little history lesson. Mental health institutions were closed in the 1960s because of safety concerns and deplorable conditions. They were routinely likened to prisons; this New York Times article hints at their despair and cruelty (“the smell of caged humans”).
More than just lamenting mental health institutions, I find Donald’s disparagement of the mentally ill deeply disturbing. The President has the world’s most powerful bully pulpit–the ability to seize the day’s narrative with an opinion, quote, or tweet (however ill-advised). But instead of providing factual information about mental health, the President has used his bully pulpit to reinforce demeaning, damaging stereotypes. In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shooting, the President referred to the alleged shooter as a “savage sicko.” At Trump’s urging, his then attorney general, Jeff Sessions, vowed to examine the “intersection of mental health and criminality.”
Parkland isn’t the first time Trump (or his administration) have conflated mental health and violence. Following a Thousand Oaks, California shooting, Trump disparaged the shooter as a “very sick puppy” before speculating about his PTSD. Dr. Trump (note I am being facetious here) then went on to conflate military service with PTSD, insinuating that PTSD transforms veterans into brazen, remorseless killers.
Here’s the problem: Even when spewing misinformation, the President’s words are impactful; he has the ability to shape (and shift) public perception. He–and he alone–can deliver a prime-time address–single handedly commandeering the public’s attention. He–and he alone–can transform an issue (i.e. the now infamous wall) into a partisan rallying cry. And he–and he can alone–can mainstream crass–even vindictive–language toward mental health sufferers.
As a mental health consumer, it is painful to listen to Trump’s campaign of misinformation. But more than my personal disgust, Trump’s vitriolic language is counter-productive–particularly for patients equivocating about mental health treatment (and, for the record, I was once that patient). With Trump–our very own President–repeatedly linking mental health to criminality, will some patients be too ashamed to take that counseling appointment? If we are talking about criminality, here’s the real crime: Only 44% of adults with a diagnosable mental health condition receive treatment.
The presidential bully pulpit? I never imagined Trump would take the expression so literally.