Let’s talk about real issues, not Trump’s mental health

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The Connecticut Mirror covered the invitation issued by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-3rd District) to a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, to her Washington home to discuss the sitting president’s fitness – or lack thereof – for the office he holds. The first time I saw the story, I scrolled by. The second time, I clicked on the link.  By the third or fourth time, I responded with a short series of tweets expressing my profound disappointment. By the third or fourth time I did this, I was invited to write an op-ed.

That was last week. So much has happened in the intervening days, as has seemed to be the case since January 2017 that I, myself, questioned whether it was worth my time to write this, and your time to read it. But here we are.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I have not read the book edited by Dr. Lee. I have not seen her appearances on various news media outlets. Feel free to place less weight on my opinion based on that, if you must. I am relying on Dr. Lee’s own words in previous CT Mirror coverage.

I have a fundamental problem with the entire concept of “witnessing professionals.” It reeks of an inflated sense of the worth of one’s opinion based on possession of a professional degree. By this, I do not mean to say that people in any particular profession are not entitled to have their own opinions, and it goes without saying that any individual opinion is going to be informed by one’s own experiences, both professional and personal. I also believe that everyone has a right to share their opinions and should be encouraged to do so.  Instead, I place the responsibility on the rest of us., We should not unduly defer to any particular group of people’s concerns simply because they have the letters M.D. (or in my case, J.D.) after their names.

All professions have ethical guidelines for a reason.  The doctors who are – let’s face it – providing armchair diagnoses of the occupant of the White House are acting contrary to guidance from the APA and the Goldwater Rule.  They can argue that they are only commenting on the dangerousness of his behavior, and aren’t making a diagnosis, but that’s a distinction without a difference.

The way in which disability has been addressed in public discourse has been a topic of conversation on “Disability Twitter” for months.  More recent conversation has been focused on coverage of elected officials and public figures.  For those of us who have actually been labeled with a mental health diagnosis, the conversation about what the president may or may not have has been particularly frustrating.  We know, because many of us have experienced it personally, that being labeled often means facing discrimination.

For all of this talk, the likely consequences to Mr. Trump are minimal at best, as long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.  Who is most likely to feel the deleterious impact of the repeated barrage of comments that some yet-to-be-determined mental health or cognitive condition represents dangerousness?  Those of us who actually live with those diagnoses.

I was particularly taken aback by Dr. Lee’s comment that “most people don’t see impaired people performing day in and day out.”  I’m sorry to burst Dr. Lee’s bubble, but there are many of us so-called “impaired people” living our lives every single day – our disabled existence is not a performance.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law recently issued a statement on the recent press and public discourse about the mental health status of public figures and they are correct in noting that “it is the conduct itself, not a mental health diagnosis, which is relevant. Claiming a person must be mentally ill – or ‘crazy’ – to exhibit these behaviors is factually incorrect and blatantly discriminatory. Millions of Americans with mental health disabilities live, work, and raise families while not demonstrating any of these behaviors and this rhetoric does nothing but hurt them. We must do better.”

I want to do better by having a conversation, but changing the topic of the discourse. I would like to talk with Dr. Lee, or any psychiatrist, about the effects of the policies of this administration on the lives of their patients.

What has it meant to the people they serve, the people they treat in their practices, to have the Affordable Care Act constantly under attack?  To have a two-year delay by Social Security to rule on someone’s eligibility for disability benefits?  To worry about SNAP (food stamps) or housing assistance being cut?

I cannot imagine that the ongoing daily trauma of worry about inability to meet one’s basic needs has a positive effect on anyone’s mental health.  It is these impacts that my colleagues and I witness every day as legal aid lawyers. That is the conversation I would like to have. Let’s talk.

Kathleen Flaherty is Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. 


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