Who Looks After the President's Mental Health?

Nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. appointed the first physician to look after the physical health of the president. As the president’s personal doctor, he or she looks after the president’s health and well-being, and provides the American public with an annual report on the president’s general health.

With all that we’ve learned about the important and inseparable connection between physical and mental health, might it be time for the president to also have a personal psychologist or psychiatrist? After all, who looks after the president’s mental health?

That’s the question posed by Alex Thompson, writing over at Politico:

Despite the mercurial behavior and pill-popping, there is no one employed to keep tabs on the president’s mental health. Nor has any presidential physician ever been a trained psychiatrist. Today, the presidential physician periodically releases a summary of the president’s checkups, but these reports do not contain psychiatric information. Those presidents who are known to have received psychiatric medication had to arrange for it in secret, most often from doctors without backgrounds in mental health.

It’s a good point. In an age where we’ve significantly reduced the prejudice and discrimination afforded people who have a mental illness, we still seem to hold politicians to a double standard (although, sadly, prejudice and violence against people with mental illness is still all too common). How terrible would it be if a president acknowledged that he (or she) grappled with depressive episodes in his life? Why would it be unthinkable to vote for a president who suffers from bipolar disorder, as long as it is being actively treated?

Today, if the president needs mental health care, it’s unlikely he can find a mental health professional to turn to privately and confidentially as he could with his private physician. And while his private physician might be able to recommend psychiatric treatment of some sort, it would get complicated fast if that professional hadn’t been vetted, cleared by security, and ready to listen to some frank talk from one of the most powerful people in the world.

If mental health is equal to physical health, shouldn’t we treat it equally in all walks of life? While physicians are great guardians and experts of our physical health, they are far less so when it comes to a person’s mental health. For that, we need to turn to the mental health experts: psychiatrists and psychologists.

Thompson seems to agree:

In fact, the appointment of a presidential psychiatrist would actually be the most politically prudent way for a president to receive psychiatric care. As is the current practice with the presidential physician, the president could choose to keep any or all parts of his or her psychiatric medical files private. Even appointments need not be disclosed. The leak of any medical information about the president would breach both doctor-patient confidentiality and the military chain of command, providing an extra layer of privacy to the president.

There could be no clearer way of sending a signal to the American public that mental health is truly equal to that of physical health than by appointing a psychiatrist or psychologist as the president’s personal therapist.

Just as important, as presidential candidates release their physical health records before running, they should also be required to release relevant, basic mental health records. The American people have a right to know not only that the candidate is in good physical health, but also in good mental health. If the candidate has never seen a mental health professional, he should be objectively evaluated by an an independent, non-partisan professional who can give him a clean bill of mental health (just as a physician gives for physical health).

If we continue treating mental health concerns as just more cheap political fodder for public consumption and entertainment — as we did in the most recent presidential election — we send mixed signals about whether mental illness is to be feared and mocked, or acknowledged and embraced. There is no better time than within the first 100 years since the president’s physician was first appointed to appoint the president’s first psychiatrist or psychologist.

 

Read the full article: The President Needs a Psychiatrist