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Trump has put the American public into a state of ‘collective madness’: psychotherapist

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Over the weekend, President Donald Trump attended the G7 summit. Notably, the president went on a lengthy rant blaming former President Obama for Russia’s exclusion from the meeting.

As experts pointed out, Russia was expelled by European leaders after the Kremlin chose to annex Crimea and invade Ukraine.

Trump’s performance at the G7 once again raised questions about his mental health and fitness for office.

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Raw Story spoke with Ian Hughes, Ph.D., a scientist and author with a doctorate in experimental atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast and a postgraduate diploma in psychoanalytic psychotherapy from the Irish Institute for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. He is a senior research fellow at the Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork, Ireland, and a policy advisor on science, technology, and innovation policy. His book, “Disordered Minds,” explores how a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world, and he contributed these insights to “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” edited by Bandy X. Lee.

Raw Story: You are not counted among the 37 mental health experts in the book but have trained in psychoanalysis and advocated for mental health professionals to have a role in public conversations. Why?

Hughes: I think the problem we are facing is not simply one of explaining Donald Trump’s irrational and destructive behavior. It is the wider question of why societies so often fall into periods of collective madness, in which hatred and aggression become the norm. I experienced this myself as a child growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles there. During thirty years of violence, almost four thousand people were killed in a senseless spiral of sectarian hatred. That left an indelible question for me as to how such monumental stupidities can happen. And, of course, it hasn’t only happened in Northern Ireland. There was a song by the British band Barclay James Harvest that I loved as a teenager with the lines: “I’m a child of South Africa / I’m a child of Vietnam / I’m a child of Northern Ireland / I’m a small boy with blood on his hands.”

So, it happened in South Africa and in Vietnam and in Cambodia and in China and in the Soviet Union. I could go on and on, of course. In Anne Applebaum’s book, Gulag, she says that she wrote the book not so that such horrors will not happen again, but because they almost certainly will happen again. So, the questions for me are can we understand how societies disintegrate in this way and, based on that understanding, can we guard against it happening again.

I have no doubt that psychopathology plays a major role in the collapse of social norms and basic moral values that accompanies such descents into horror. We know that people with certain mental disorders, namely psychopaths and individuals with narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, who make up around five percent of the population in every society, have a much higher propensity for violence than the rest of the population. People with these disorders are stuck in a narrow range of destructive thoughts and behaviors, characterised by rage, self-importance, denigration of others, scapegoating, and a propensity toward cruelty and revenge. When conditions are such that a large proportion of the rest of us begin to think in the same way, the foundations of society begin to crumble.

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Given this, I think it is essential that mental health professionals are vocal participants in the collective conversation we need to have to understand what is happening and how to prevent things from deteriorating further.

Raw Story: Should the public rely solely on the opinions of mental health professionals? Even experts will disagree.

Hughes: Mental health professionals have knowledge that is indispensable for the conversation we need to have. It is difficult conversation to have, though, and understandably so. To begin with, we as citizens do not have a clear understanding of the personality disorders I mentioned and where they fit into the wider issues of mental health and mental illness. Mental health professionals have a role in educating the wider public on these basic issues, so that a less charged and more informed discussion can begin.

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But the aim should not be to set mental health professionals up as the experts whose word we have to take at face value. The aim should be an educated population who have the language and framework to think for themselves and decide for themselves. To my mind, that is part of what strengthening democracy is about now in the era of Trump and authoritarian populism.

Raw Story: How do you understand the distinction between mental illness and dangerousness, as the book makes?

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Hughes: To answer your question, I’d like to address two of the objections that are often made against discussing psychopathology as a factor in politics. The first objection is that it medicalizes politics. To my mind, because I believe individuals with these disorders are relatively common in politics, as in other walks of life, then politics is already medicalized. It is simply a matter of recognizing this and discussing it.

The second objection is that discussing the possible psychopathology of political figures stigmatizes people with mental illness. This objection really underlines the point I made earlier about the misconceptions that make having this discussion difficult. Part of the conversation needs to be about the terms we use and the clear distinctions there are between different forms of mental illness. Suffice to say, for the moment, that mental health professionals educating the public on what dangerous personality disorders are does not stigmatise those who with mental illness any more than introducing precautionary measures to protect the public from an outbreak of ebola stigmatizes those with heart disease.

Raw Story: What can society do to help encourage these conversations?

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Hughes: I mentioned already that I believe that mental health professionals have a critical role to play in this discussion. But the problem is much wider than a single pathological leader. The problem is also the economic and social conditions that make so many of us agree with the hatemongering and scapegoating. It is about the enormous levels of inequality in our societies, about cultures of destructive competition and isolated individualism. It is about a narrow nationalism that allows individual countries to imagine that their fate is not wrapped up with the wellbeing of humanity as a whole. We need a fundamental conversation about the type of society we want to live in and the type of world we want to create for our children. This is a conversation that psychologists and experts from many other disciplines must participate in, but it is a conversation that involves us all. And it is a conversation we can start to have with our friends, our neighbors, and, most importantly, those with whom we disagree.


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