Belfast Telegraph

Should mental health checks be compulsory for leaders who have access to nuclear codes?

Donald Trump's bizarre behaviour raises the issue of psychological testing, argues Fionola Meredith

Is President Trump mad? Not mad in the American sense of raging, angry, seriously aggrieved - though he frequently appears to be all three of those things, and then some. No, I'm simply asking - along with a lot of other people both in the US and around the globe - if the leader of the free world is, in fact, a sandwich or two short of the full picnic?

Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, is the latest public figure to acknowledge that there are questions about the mental health of the US president, after Mr Trump tweeted a video of himself 'body-slamming' a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head.

The bizarre and not-so-subtle attack on the independent media was variously condemned as un-American, an attempt to undermine democracy and an incitement to violence.

Certainly, it wasn't the sort of behaviour you'd expect from the US President, at least until Trump came along and rewrote the etiquette book.

Brash and bullish, aggressive and crude - definitely. Trump is clearly also narcissistic, thin-skinned, and given to absurd fits of grandiosity. But does this all add up to crazy? None of us are in a position to say.

Gillard, who's now the chair of Beyondblue, an Australian mental health support service, was rightly wary of those who use the word 'mental' as an insult, a crude way to dismiss or disparage opponents, or those who seek to make an unqualified psychological diagnosis of someone they have never even met.

But also said: "I know that some people in the US … are not proffering that analysis by way of insult: they are actually saying it because they are genuinely concerned."

And yes, it is rather concerning - some would say utterly terrifying - that the man with the nuclear codes at his fingertips might be, you know, a tiny bit unstable.

So should candidates for the US presidency, or indeed all political leaders, be required to undergo a mental health assessment?

The idea is not a new one, but it is gaining currency. In the 1990s, former US President Jimmy Carter pushed for the creation of a panel of physicians to monitor a leader's mental competence while in office.

More recently, Frederick Burkle, a senior fellow of Harvard University, called for the psychiatric testing of candidates "as both a global security and a strategic priority", noting that there is a "unique and poorly understood subset of the population who are driven to seek the ultimate opportunity to control, dictate, and live out their fantasies of power on the world scene".

Earlier this year, during a conference at Yale University, a group of psychiatrists warned that Mr Trump has a "dangerous mental illness" and was not fit to lead the United States. The experts said that it was their "ethical responsibility" to warn people that the US President was "paranoid and delusional" and thus a danger to the country.

They spoke out in defiance of the American Psychiatric Association's Goldwater rule, which forbids psychiatrists from offering professional opinions on individuals they have not personally evaluated.

Whatever Mr Trump's psychological status, there's no doubt that it takes a certain kind of personality to go into politics. A deep commitment to their local community, or a desire to make the world a better place are often cited as reasons by politicians seeking election.

But there are other less benign, much more invidious traits which can inspire a run for office. Most of them revolve, as Professor Burkle indicated, around fantasies of power and control, as well as the desperate need to be admired or endorsed by followers.

In this sense, many politicians are psychologically similar to television presenters: they are performers with fragile egos, craving the adrenalised buzz that comes from popular attention, even when that attention is negative.

I have no doubt whatsoever that our own politicians are every bit in thrall to the exercise of power as they are anywhere else. But in Northern Ireland there is the added complication of ingrained sectarianism and the damaging legacy of the Troubles. Some of our representatives cling to their motivating ideologies, whether republican or unionist, with the obsessive, fanatical force of a psychiatric mania. This is when intransigence becomes pathological.

To my knowledge, there has never been a mental health audit carried out among politicians at Stormont, and my guess is there never will be. I'm sure they all believe that they are perfectly normal, well-adjusted people, even when they end up doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Sound familiar? It's the very definition of insanity.

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