The science behind: teens and Trump



Talia Zitner

What do teens and Trump have in common? Besides turning to Twitter to get in their feelings, surprising comparisons can be drawn between our generation and the 45th president. As Trump’s reign continues, many have begun to call his mental health and emotional capacity into question. Claims that he is mentally unstable or emotionally unfit must be proven, and psychiatrists and psychologists alike (along with some outliers, like Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat) are calling for some sort of measure to be taken to assess his governing capability. In a letter written by doctors Judith Herman (professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School), Nanette Gartrell (associate clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California), and Dee Mosbacher (assistant clinical professor at University of California), they suggest that Trump, “receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.” It seems as though the majority of the mental health community has come to the conclusion that Trump fits the characters of one with “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” or “NPD.” However, only about 1% of the population has clinical NPD. As far as a real diagnoses goes, in 1973 the A.P.A. (American Psychological Association) developed the Goldwater Rule, which says that, “psychiatrists can discuss mental health issues with the news media, but that it is unethical for them to diagnose mental illnesses in people they have not examined and whose consent they have not received.”

Although not really suffering from NPD, some of the defining characteristics of narcissism have been shown through Trump’s actions. NPD is characterized by, “people who have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others…[although] behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Sound familiar? Someone with NPD for example could, “indeed, wake up, see a Tweet or a news report from a foreign leader criticizing him, mocking him, calling him “weak” or threatening his ego in any way and order some kind of impulsive, vindictive, punishing, immediate response,” as described by the three mental health professionals above in their letter.

What does this have to do with teens? Today’s social media culture has led some psychologists to believe that this generation is growing up with the threat of narcissism lurking by the “dislike” button. Young adults go through a “narcissistic” phase, (who doesn’t take a couple selfies when they’re feelin’ themselves?) in order to establish their own identities and distance themselves from their primary caregivers. This doesn’t mean that all teens are narcissists, just that we need to redefine narcissism and narcissistic traits so it includes social media usage. Psychologist Ciarán McMahon from the Institute of Cyber Security agrees, as described in an online article that, “social media is not the cause of NPD, but is an expression of it.” However, is this really an example of mental illness or just a new “normal?”

There is a clear line between being “narcissistic” and having NPD. The difference between the two is that one must suffer from the distress and impairment required to have a mental disorder. As Allen Frances, chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, writes in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Mr. Trump causes severe stress rather than experiencing it.” The same can be applied for teenagers. Despite snapchatting their way through a party or waiting for the right time of day to post on Instagram to maximize the amount of “likes” they get (we all know the best times are right when people wake up, lunchtime, or right after dinner), teens are not all suffering Narcissistic Personality Disorder, just from the pressures of adolescence.

This generation has perhaps been the best at bringing to light the problems with the stigmatization and misdiagnosis of mental illness. Not all teens are narcissists, and no one really knows if Trump is suffering from a mental disorder. If one thing is clear, it is that the importance of understanding the science behind our motivations, whether it be wanting a certain number of retweets or making political decisions, is always relevant to both older and younger generations.