Why Calling Public Figures ‘Mentally Ill’ Is a Dangerous Practice

Recently, Bollywood actor and director Farhan Akhtar tweeted asking BJP Bhopal candidate Pragya Thakur, asking her to get “back on her meds” when she called Nathuram Godse a “deshbhakt (patriot).

Similarly, politician Subramanian Swamy alleged that the Congress’ general secretary Priyanka Gandhi is bipolar and has physically abused people.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has himself been called narcissistic on many occasions, made an insensitive reference to dyslexia while taking a jive at Rahul Gandhi recently.

The trend to call a politician ‘mentally ill’, however, is neither new nor restricted to the Indian political scenario.

In the US, in 1964, a magazine called Fact polled a group of mental health professionals who deemed then presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, mentally unfit to contest in elections.

Goldwater lost the election.

Later, he sued the publication and inspired the American Psychiatrist Association to implement the Goldwater Rule. According to the rule, a psychiatrist cannot diagnose a public figure they haven’t personally examined. It also says that the psychiatrist cannot make his diagnosis public without taking the patient’s consent. That rule still holds today.

A year ago, there were discussions around impeaching US president Donald Trump with regard to his mental health.

Many arguments were made on the premise that Trump’s allegedly impaired mental health makes him unfit to occupy the office of president. Over 70,000 mental health experts signed a petition ‘Diagnose Trump’ which later came together to form the World Mental Health Coalition.

The signatories said that Trump’s hateful statements override the Goldwater Rule and that no conditions apply when a person [Trump] is at risk of harming her/himself or others.

However, some psychiatrists, like Dr Allen Frances, say that Trump’s mental condition cannot be the reason for him to put down his papers. He said that such arguments are an “insult to the mentally ill”.

Indian politicians 

In India, things are slightly different from the US. Here, accusations of this public figure or that being mentally unfit are thrown about almost casually. But as far as I know, we have never had mental health experts participating in such debates.

However, there is one similarity between the leaders of the two countries. Both Trump and Modi have been repeatedly called narcissistic ever since they came to power. According to Dr Frances, Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD) is one of the mental health conditions and distress is an important criterion while determining a person’s mental health.

While none of us can tell if Narendra Modi, Pragya Thakur or Priyanka Gandhi are in distress due to mental health issues, it is true that 6.5 % of Indians are, as a WHO report found.

According to the National Mental Health Survey conducted in 2015-2016, every sixth person in India is in need of mental health support. This survey also states that the treatment gap for mental health issues is 85%, which means that 85% of Indians who need help, never seek it.

Arguably, one of the major reasons for not seeking help is the stigma attached to mental health. In a study by Deepika Padukone’s Live Love Laugh Foundation, 68% of the people surveyed felt that those with mental health issues should not be given any responsibility. In the same study, 44% of respondents felt that people with mental illness are violent. So what is the harm in calling someone, “crazy,” “pagal,” or “mad”?

While it may have no bearing on the person being called those names, it harms people like me. People like me who have a diagnosed mental health condition. Whenever I hear words like these, I wonder whether those labels apply to me as well.

I have depression, so does that make me incapable? If I need to take a day’s leave to take care of my mental health, will/can my organisation fire me? More importantly, if I want to stand for elections, can I? Will I be taken seriously?

I have been made fun of a lot. I have been called lazy for most of my life and, until I received my diagnosis, I believed that I was indeed lazy.

Voting rights of mental health patients

Conversations and questions about a public figure’s mental health are generally futile. It ends with arguments like “he/she is mad” and when it is countered with a logical statement, they say, “no, you are mad”.

What doesn’t get discussed is the power that person wields and the impact of their ideologies on policies and decisions they make.

These rhetorics of madness are lazy and harmful to those who are affected by mental health issues. It uses the common trope of mental illness being funny and something to be ridiculed. The vilification of mental health encourages social distancing and increases the risk of lethal loneliness (where the person puts themselves at fatal risk due to the loneliness that they face).

When people make fun of mental health issues, it creates fear and stigma rather than pointing at something which needs attention. People with mental health issues need support and empathy. They deserve to be loved and cared for. They are a part of society, have the ability to vote and stand for elections if they so choose.

Does it matter to me that Pragya Thakur is supposedly off her meds? No.

Should it matter to me that she is a terror accused who is out on bail and says that cow pee cured her cancer? Definitely.

Rashi is a criminologist by training, lives with her spouse, Paras; dog, Zoe; depression and anxiety, and currently works with White Swan Foundation, in Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Emily Dunne