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Why attempts to diagnose Jake Paul as a sociopath are even worse than doing it with Trump

Why attempts to diagnose Jake Paul as a sociopath are even worse than doing it with Trump


On a platform like YouTube, mental health stigma is primed to spread faster and more dangerously

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Is Jake Paul a sociopath? That question is asked almost immediately in the first episode of Shane Dawson’s new documentary series. For the past 50 years, psychology’s best practices have suggested that we’re all better off without such speculation, let alone from a prominent YouTube creator. That has in no way deterred Dawson, who devoted an eight-part series to the question.

Dawson attempts to reassure his audience through disclaimers and by responding to critics. But on a platform where influencers are often viewed as more trustworthy than traditional news sources, and where conspiracy and misinformation nevertheless run rampant, unofficial diagnoses like this have become more potentially harmful than ever.

Nearly half a century ago, the American Psychiatric Association instated its Goldwater Rule, which prohibits members from commenting publicly on someone they haven’t examined. The APA created the rule in response to speculation during Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; a number of psychiatrists who had never met the candidate responded to a Fact Magazine survey that Goldwater might “be suffering from chronic psychosis” or be “basically a paranoid schizophrenic.” Since the election of Donald Trump, some psychiatrists have pushed against the rule, arguing that the president is clearly disturbed and that it’s their duty to try to remove him from office.

The DSM criteria are written by humans, and humans have our own biases

Dawson’s documentary doesn’t carry the same ethical weight as the urge to save humanity from nuclear warfare; Dawson’s not a mental health professional, and Jake Paul is not the president of the United States, either.

The push to diagnose public figures, even when it comes to the president, is always going to be misguided, according to the psychiatrist Allen Frances. Frances helped write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, meaning he literally wrote the book on personality disorders; he’s also the author of Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump.

The entire enterprise of speculating on the mental health of erratic public figures “is confusing bad behavior with mental illness, and that’s very insulting and stigmatizing to the mentally ill,” Frances tells The Verge. “For mental illness to be lumped with bad behavior is an intolerable insult to the mentally ill.” When violence or bad behavior becomes linked in the public imagination with diagnoses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, it becomes harder for people who are struggling with these issues to seek help.

“For mental illness to be lumped with bad behavior is an intolerable insult to the mentally ill”

First, Frances says, people should be punished because of their behavior, not because of a mental health diagnosis. In Trump’s case, the solution is political, not medical: if he’s to be removed from office, it should be because he has behaved terribly as a president, not because of any underlying diagnosis. Similarly, public figures like Paul should be held accountable for their bad actions — which, in this case, include allegations of property damage and being emotionally abusive to an ex — regardless of whether they constitute a “disorder.”

Second, the DSM — which Dawson invokes in hopes of making his “research” seem legitimate — is ultimately subjective. For the series’ second episode, Dawson speaks to licensed therapist and YouTuber Kati Morton, who made a video about “sociopathy” for her own channel. She discusses the DSM criteria with Dawson, interspersed with horror-movie sound effects, clips of Paul, and lots of Dawson gasping and looking shocked.

But there are no proteins in the blood or other physical markers that confirm that someone has a particular personality disorder. The criteria are written by humans, and humans have our own biases: famously, “homosexuality” used to be labeled a disorder. “Sociopath,” the designation that Dawson has chosen, is not even in the manual.

Both Morton and Frances clarify that its closest analog is antisocial personality disorder —and Frances says he was against putting it in the manual in the first place when he worked on the third version of the DSM. “That ‘diagnosis’ reflects bad behavior,” he says. “There’s nothing inherently psychiatric, there’s no treatment, and it’s not the subject of psychiatric research. Just because it’s in the manual doesn’t give it special magical explanatory power.” (Unsurprisingly, Jake Paul has denied that he is a sociopath.)

This kind of fact-free speculation is especially dangerous on YouTube, since nearly 40 percent of YouTube users get their news from the platform, and that it’s the preferred internet platform for teens. These circumstances make it even easier to spread misinformation among people that probably aren’t following debates over whether or not it’s okay to diagnose people in public.

Dawson’s project already seems to have encouraged others to also speculate on Paul’s possible personality disorder; fans have also been quick to criticize Dawson’s project for stigmatizing mental illness. The creator’s response, however, has been inconsistent. He’s been careful to say that he’s not explicitly claiming Paul is a sociopath, but the series’ editing heavily implies it. Dawson has apologized for the horror-style editing and clarified that having a mental disorder in itself wouldn’t make someone toxic — then he also claimed that people with severe anti-social personality disorder “actually literally don’t care” about the stigma and can’t be offended or stigmatized, anyway.

Dawson has a huge audience: 18 million subscribers at press time; 76 million total views across five videos so far. Despite his disclaimers that he means no harm, the series’ existence still encourages harmful speculation. The psychiatrists calling for Trump to be diagnosed are, at the very least, trained professionals with a clear plan of action regarding an exceedingly powerful man; Dawson, meanwhile, is simply a YouTube celebrity perplexed — admittedly, as many are — by Jake Paul’s behavior. “I think it’s perfectly fine to criticize someone’s specific behaviors,” Frances says, “but [I] disapprove of using fake psychiatric diagnosis as a form of psychological name-calling.”

The series encourages harmful speculation

The enduring appeal of medical diagnosis is clear: it’s a way to classify human behavior, and the DSM — which is currently in its fifth version and remains a popular seller — provides the reassurance of scientific validity. “In America, clearly many people buy DSMs who are not mental-health workers, and at least some of the motivation is to explain what diagnoses might qualify for their wives, their bosses, their enemies,” Frances says. “But the DSM puts perhaps too clear-cut names on behaviors and feelings that otherwise would be confusing and disturbing.”

The DSM can be an important tool when used by a clinician, but it’s ultimately a very limited part of understanding psychiatric patients. Taken outside that context, it’s easily misused by drug companies hoping to develop new products, in fraught legal fights, or by YouTube creators hoping to make a splash.

Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness declined to comment for this story. A representative for Shane Dawson did not respond to a request for comment.