Mental health professionals who have expressed concern over what they see as Donald Trump’s declining faculties say that similar fears about Joe Biden’s are overblown.
“A few stumbled words are not the same as the extreme danger that result from a list of signs that Donald Trump has shown,” Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist on the faculty at the Yale School of Medicine, told Yahoo News, “and none of them apply to Joe Biden.”
Lee edited a collection of essays written by 27 mental health professionals titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” which detailed what the authors see as the risks posed by a leader who they regard as mentally and emotionally unfit for the most powerful office in the world.
Yet since Biden’s reemergence as a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Lee has been flooded by requests to assess the former vice president’s string of stumbles in public appearances. In response, she published a piece on Medium correcting what she sees as the false equivalence between Trump’s “mental instability” and Biden’s occasional gaffes.
Trump frequently misstates or invents statistics or facts in his speeches, and in remarks last year seemed confused on the birthplace of his own father, saying he was born in Germany. (It was the Bronx.) Biden bungled an appeal for campaign volunteers at a debate last year, and recently shared what appeared to be a false memory of being “arrested on the streets of Soweto,” in South Africa, on his way to visit Nelson Mandela. (He was briefly detained at an airport during an official visit, but not arrested.)
“None of them are catastrophically alarming the way the signs have been with Donald Trump. I think there needs to be a measure of proportion here. On the one hand, we have such mental instability and such great cognitive decline as well as neurological signs that show imminent risk to the entire human civilization, compared with some gaffes perhaps. If we’re not addressing the former, why are we even talking about the latter?”
To be sure, one reason the topic of Biden’s mental capacity has become an issue in the campaign is that he has often struggled to express himself at campaign events and debates. But Biden, who has struggled with a stutter since childhood, has been prone to bouts of inarticulateness for decades.
If he goes on to win the presidency, Biden would be, at 78, the oldest American ever sworn into office. Trump turns 74 in June.
Biden himself has said that discussing a candidate’s cognitive capacity is not off limits.
“It would be a totally legitimate thing for people to say, Let’s look at Biden. He would be the oldest guy to ever be president. See what kind of shape he’s in, mentally, physically and the rest,” Biden told PBS in a January interview.
But another reason for the renewed focus on Biden’s mental acuity is that supporters of his political rivals, Trump and Bernie Sanders, have been promoting it as an issue on social media.
The GOP is already diagnosing Biden with dementia. Full stop. And all he's doing is giving them more material.
This is like an electoral asteroid hurdling towards the Earth, and people are pretending it doesn't exist.
— Samuel D. Finkelstein II (@CANCEL_SAM) March 5, 2020
Mental health professionals tend to draw a distinction between Biden’s onstage missteps and what some of them regard as Trump’s propensity to bend reality to his purposes.
Biden “digresses and gets tangential, that’s not cognitive decline,” Lynne Meyer, a California psychologist told Yahoo News. “Trump’s cognitive decline or problems are that he doesn’t even seem to have comprehension of reality. That’s what it looks like.”
In 2018, Meyer joined more than 70 other mental health professionals in signing a letter to Trump’s then-physician Randy Jackson requesting that the president be given a mental health evaluation.
“When you see a person that can’t even articulate words, and it doesn’t happen just once and doesn’t remember names — Tim Apple, or whatever,” Meyer said. “I don’t see the same thing with Biden.”
Barbara Kaufman, a psychologist in Maryland, agreed that Trump’s mental condition was a far bigger threat to the country than Biden’s.
“His mental illnesses have much more of an impact and are much more dangerous than what Biden has,” Kaufman said.
In December, Biden made public three pages of his medical history, including his blood pressure (128/84) and cholesterol (126). “Vice President Biden is a healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency, to include those as Chief Executive, Head of State and Commander in Chief,” Biden’s doctor, Kevin O’Connor, wrote.
Sanders, who was briefly hospitalized after a heart attack in October, promised to release his medical records before the start of the primaries, but then said he had changed his mind. In December, he released three letters from doctors saying he was in good health. His blood pressure (102/56) was even lower than Biden’s, and both candidates were almost the same height (about six feet) and weight (178 for Biden, 174 for Sanders).
The records Biden released did not address his mental health or questions about cognitive decline.
While Lee emphasizes that Trump’s psyche is the much larger issue, she acknowledges that all those who seek the highest office in the land need to be evaluated in terms of mental health.
“It’s not an absent observation. Some of it may happen with normal decline. Others may be a warning sign, but we don’t know that without an examination,” Lee said. “But still, I would emphasize that I would give attention to the overwhelming danger that we have before us. Until that is addressed, or unless that is addressed, I personally do not wish to hear about Joe Biden.”
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