Monday, April 23, 2018

Can Trump prove his sanity?

  • Print

Since Donald Trump took over the United States presidency a year ago, doubts over his mental stability and his very sanity have been mounting. With the release of Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which claims to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the president's dysfunctional administration, those doubts seem to have taken on a new salience and urgency.

But, beyond claiming on Twitter that he is a "very stable genius," what could Trump actually do to prove that he is psychologically fit for what, by some definitions, is the world's highest office?

There is no clear physical test for mental illness. Even if Trump were subjected to a battery of blood tests and brain scans, the results would most likely prove nothing. The vast majority of people with psychosis would have normal results. Likewise, an abnormal test wouldn't necessarily imply impaired mental capacity: a person can retain their intelligence, even after losing a significant amount of their brain.

For example, a recent study showed that all but four of 54 children who underwent a hemispherectomy, in which half the brain is removed to treat severe and intractable epilepsy, showed the same or even improved intellectual capacity. So Trump could literally have half a brain, and it still wouldn't prove that he was mentally ill.

Another approach to determining Trump's mental fitness would be to have psychiatrists examine him and share their findings. But, however unbiased the psychiatrists were, such assessments would ultimately be subjective. As any trial judge or criminal lawyer can attest, for every psychological expert produced by the defense in a legal case, prosecutors can produce one to argue the opposite.

Consider the case of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. At his trial, two teams of court-appointed psychiatrists disagreed with each other over whether he was insane. If psychiatrists can't agree on whether a mass murderer is insane, what hope is there that they could agree about Trump?

In any case, Trump seems to have no interest in bringing in experts. Instead, he has pursued his own - and, from a psychiatric perspective, ill-advised - strategy for rebutting questions about his sanity.

One of Trump's go-to defenses has been that he is highly intelligent - or, as he put it recently on Twitter, "like, really smart." But, even if true, this, too, proves nothing. Many highly intelligent people suffer from mental illness.

In fact, studies have shown that the populations of countries with higher average IQs suffer higher rates of suicide. And suicide rates at the prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge are in line with average suicide rates for university-age people, highlighting again that being smart - or even smart and privileged - does not immunize a person against mental illness.

Trump also claims that he is too successful to be mentally ill. But Howard Hughes's success as a film producer and airline owner made him one of the richest Americans to emerge during the first half of the twentieth century. He also set several world airspeed records. Yet he suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he died suffering from extreme malnutrition and possible drug addiction.

Likewise, John Paul Getty, the US-born industrialist who was the world's richest person during his time, was so obsessively frugal and paranoid that, when his grandson was kidnapped, he negotiated down the ransom demand, even after the kidnappers sent him a lock of his grandson's hair and one of his ears.

Trump's third key defense is to turn allegations about his sanity against his accusers and political opponents. That tactic is not new. In the Soviet Union - and, many argue, in China today - political dissidents would be committed to psychiatric care, precisely to discredit them. Russia actually withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association for most of the 1980s, in order to avoid being expelled for such practices.

As an experiment led by David Rosenhan of Stanford University in the 1970s demonstrated, a label of mental illness can be difficult to remove. Healthy volunteers invented a hallucination, in order to find out whether the psychiatric system could distinguish genuine mental illness.

The volunteers ended up being admitted to psychiatric institutions, where they behaved normally and claimed no symptoms. But, with the psychotic label already affixed to their files, whatever they did was assumed to be a symptom of their insanity. At best, they would be declared to be "in remission."

Rosenhan's experiment suggests that questions about Trump's mental health might never go away, no matter what steps he takes to change his detractors' minds. Even if he stops ranting on Twitter or speaking in convoluted and incoherent sentences, at best he will be viewed as being "in remission."

Modern psychiatrists would argue that they have taken to heart the lessons of the Rosenhan experiment, and now make diagnoses much more cautiously and rigorously. Yet irresponsible political uses of psychiatric medicine still abound. To name one example, the British government recently attempted to recruit National Health Service mental-health professionals to report those suspected of being psychiatrically vulnerable to extremist ideology.

In the original Rosenhan experiment, the only people who reliably recognized that the "impostor patients" were, in fact, mentally healthy were their fellow psychiatric inmates. By this logic, perhaps we are asking the wrong people to assess Trump's sanity. In any case, if Trump's detractors hope to drive him from office, they will need more than armchair psychiatry.

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are psychiatrists based in London

-----------Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

More News For this Category

The world of William Shakespeare

| By and Syed Badrul Ahsan
There is something of Shakespeare you will spot everywhere. The universality is what you cannot miss, for there are in his plays all the sentiments, indeed all the
The world of William Shakespeare

Fake or wrong news --- A danger between the lines

| By and Nadeem Qadir
The story of bdnews24.com used the word "embarrass" from an unidentified PMO official. My learning in journalism after working for decades with the international media is that one

Dissolving Parliament and upholding democracy

| By
Much talk has been going on, and quite naturally too, about the forthcoming general election in the country. There is little argument that Bangladesh's people look forward to

America's rich political tradition

| By
Despite Donald Trump, American democracy maintains its rich heritage, one that has resonance in large parts of the world. That heritage came once more into play on Saturday

Movement for just cause or vandalism?

| By and Mahbubar Rahman
Once dubbed Oxford of the East, once regarded as the powerhouse of all movements of just causes and spearheading the independence of Bangladesh Dhaka University Campus has been
Movement for just cause or vandalism?

Social media: A blessing or a curse?

| By and Sujayendra Das
Various forms of social media are widely used all across the globe at the present time. The objective behind the use of social media is nothing but to
 Social media: A blessing or a curse?

Disturbing doings at DU Sufia Kamal Hall

| By
The authorities of Begum Sufia Kamal Hall of Dhaka University have a lot of explaining to do about why some students of the hall were forced out of

Yashwant Sinha's worries must not be ignored

| By
The resignation of Yashwant Sinha from the ruling BJP in India sends out a strong signal about the state of politics in the country. Sinha, who has served

Rajib slaps the society down

| By and Dr. Siddhartha Shankar Joarder
'Who is Rajib? Rajib is killed'. This is perhaps the last faint voice of Rajib Hossain at his death bed of Dhaka Medical College (DMC) hospital. His sere voice
Rajib slaps the society down

Autocracy under the mask of democracy

| By and M A Hossain
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has set the next polls date on weekday, which former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is seeing as a foul bid of a corruption-plagued Razak
Autocracy under the mask of democracy

© 2018 The Asian Age