Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman Needs to be Investigated

A colleague of mine said years ago that Jeffrey Lieberman needed to be stripped of his title as “Dr.” and proceeded to call him “Mr.” in our communications. This was impressive to me, as I had known no other psychiatrist for whom another colleague would make such a suggestion; with Lieberman, it would only be the first of many and, after four years of my misfortune of having to deal with him and to come to know better his character, I sympathize. I will hence refer to him simply as “Lieberman.” I am annotating here his speech in the same manner that I used to “translate” Donald Trump’s speeches — to expose his hypocrisy and the menace he is to society. The public will benefit from being informed, especially since he is seeking a position in the Biden administration, and his appointment would be a travesty for the country and the medical community. It was said that he helped Donald Trump as much as he did because he was eyeing a cabinet position; his recent bid adds proof to this claim, and it seems not to matter to him under whom he holds his position.

For those unfamiliar with him, Lieberman is the psychiatrist who most helped Donald Trump to stay in office. Some say he was the decisive factor. The more we learn, the more detrimental his actions turn out to be (“an accomplice to criminal negligence and medical malpractice,” according to one lawyer). He needs to be investigated for the favors he did for a president so damaging to public health, against psychiatric principles and against professional societal duties. We also believe that the charges Lieberman and the organization once he headed, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), took funds and privileges from the Trump administration to intimidate and harm the many psychiatrists and other mental health experts who were trying to bring public attention to warnings about Donald Trump’s dangerous psychology and unfitness for office. All the government money Lieberman and others subsequently received for their institutions, asymmetrically with other institutions of science and medicine under the same administration, needs to be investigated before he takes any important position.

Here is the speech that has caused my colleagues to send a flurry of emails, out of outrage and exasperation:

Hello. This is Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman of Columbia University, speaking to you today for Medscape. This video is inspired by observations and concerns about ongoing events that fly in the face of reason and knowledge, are unhealthy, and are possibly detrimental to our society.

There could be no more brazen statement that, ironically, echoes exactly ours, when he himself represents the opposite: he facilitated “events that fly in the face of reason and knowledge, are unhealthy, and are possibly detrimental to our society.” This will not be the first time he echoed our exact statements in order to represent the opposite. He did so in 2017, when he echoed the concerns I and some of the most renowned psychiatrists of the country (one of whom studied Nazi doctors) expressed in our book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, that American psychiatry could fall into the path of Nazi or Soviet psychiatry if not careful. While we were afraid that it would choose to serve the government over professional standards, he used it to slander us, essentially calling us akin to “Nazi and Soviet psychiatrists” for “diagnosing”, when we never did. In a pattern typical of many pathological liars, he seemed not to notice that he himself diagnosed in greater detail than any other psychiatrist, in an article where he claims in the first paragraph that he is keeping with “the Goldwater rule” (the guideline not to diagnose public figures), only to break it in the next paragraph! Lieberman needs to be investigated for the lies he promulgated about us through repetition in multiple articles.

It also did not escape our colleagues how odd it was for a psychiatrist to call a collection of essays by some of the most eminent psychiatrists and psychologists in the nation if not the world, “not a serious, scholarly, civic-minded work, but simply tawdry, indulgent, fatuous tabloid psychiatry.” When historian Michael Beschloss, impressed with the list of names in the book, confronted Lieberman on television as to whether one should not take them seriously, Lieberman responded with a flippant: “Oh, they’re not so eminent.” It is the response of someone who would debase others with just such a phrase as “tawdry, indulgent, fatuous tabloid,” which is often more revealing of oneself. He gave the disgraced and later-removed White House physician Ronny Jackson a phrase — “tabloid psychiatry” — with which to dismiss concerns from the press, even as Jackson did worse when he illegitimately declared the president “fit” based on a 10-minute screen, without the requisite mental health training or the independence to be able to make such a declaration.

A separate but important issue that needs investigation is Lieberman’s potentially Nazi doctor-like experiments. He has conducted experiments that could in some other countries be deemed as rising to the level of torture, and yet when a Pulitzer-nominated journalist investigated him, he rather attacked the journalist as being a “menace to society.” The journalist’s concerns and the actual nature of his experiments need to be independently investigated, without pharmaceutical company interference.

They pertain to mental health and the practice of psychiatry, mental illness and its associated stigma, and other topics.

“Stigma” is often the excuse given for stifling discussions on mental health, despite the voluminous literature suggesting that lack of discussion and lack of education around mental illness is what causes stigma. Contrary to assertions that silence reduces stigma, it is thought to promote guilt, shame, barriers to seeking treatment, and stigma.

It’s increasingly important for psychiatrists to have a voice in the public arena about what is happening in our country. This is particularly true in recent years, as we’ve seen that we can’t rely on government institutions to always protect us. As psychiatrists, we’re uniquely qualified to recognize and call attention to pathologic behavior in our patients, but also in populations and societies.

Here is what some in the World Mental Health Coalition (WMHC) have said: “This commentary [seems] yet another (however much veiled) backpedaling on his part from having thwarted Dr. Lee and the WMHC.” (He recently tried to revise history on another occasion, claiming that his article that cleared Donald Trump of serious psychiatric problem was actually an effort to have him removed.) “Lieberman’s got some nerve writing this piece after his relentless efforts to cut [us] off at the knees and discredit everything we have been saying for the past five years.” “Lieberman, the horse is already out of the barn and now you are pretending to want to close the door…. We all know that you were one of the grim reapers who stood in the way!” I have seldom seen such passionate statements among our membership, within the first few hours, and my very writing of this article should reveal the level of outrage we together feel.

WMHC itself formed in opposition to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that Lieberman represented, eliminating our responsibility to society, helping government institutions that were actively harming us, and toeing the pharmaceutical-industry line that nothing could be known outside a private patient examination, where pills could be prescribed. He needs to be investigated for coopting and potentially plagiarizing our statements.

If ever there was a time comparable to this past year, I don’t know it. We’ve all worn out the hackneyed expressions about just how unprecedented this recent experience is, but it’s important to remember that it’s not just one crisis. Rather, we’ve gone through a series of crises, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic but also including incidents of racial abuse and social unrest, continued economic disruptions, the contentious presidential election, and the symbolically poignant death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Like the pandemic, we would not have difficulty tracing much of the trauma back to the presidency he aided and abetted. Apart from writing articles for multiple important platforms, appearing on major television programs, and using his “clout” in every way to oppose the efforts of conscientious psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health experts, there is evidence of more. There are signs that either he or the APA acted behind the scenes to black us out decisively and permanently from the major media, within weeks of our raising our concerns to the number one topic of national conversation, and this needs to be investigated.

Among the good things that recently occurred is the advent of the COVID-19 vaccines, which signaled a possible end to this dark period. However, rather than celebrating the arrival of the scientifically engineered solution to our problem, we’re instead engaged in a battle for public opinion.

Like his blindness when he claims to keep with an ethical principle and then in the next paragraph violates it most egregiously, is he truly blind to how he contributed to this problem? His seemingly willful blindness needs to be investigated.

Since last March, we’ve been battling the COVID virus and its injurious and deadly effects. But we’ve also been fighting the pandemic’s collateral effects, such as family members losing loved ones; stresses to overburdened healthcare workers; and social and economic disruption in the form of people’s drastically changed lives, the closing of businesses, and resulting financial destitution. All of that is having a lasting impact on our population.

Empathy does not consist of seizing popular issues of the moment for one’s own benefit; this is opportunism. True empathy would begin with an apology for the ways in which he has fueled a deadly presidency. Without this, his words are tactical, manipulative, or at best emptily formulaic. Again, his brazen ability to contribute to the deaths on the one hand and to offer solace on the other is extraordinary, and needs to be investigated.

In addition to the pandemic and its disruptive effects rippling through our country, we have also become embroiled in a second conflict. It’s characterized by civil strife over how we regard the pandemic, our methods for combating it, and the recently arrived vaccine. This has caused a two-front war in which we’re battling not only the virus but also ourselves. It’s not quite a circular firing squad, but it’s a civil conflict, almost like the Civil War, where we’re divided and opposing ourselves in terms of how we should deal with this national threat.

This is exactly what we were warning against when we said that the psychological dangers of the president, without intervention, would spread to social, cultural, geopolitical, and civic dangers. Whether he is so ignorant and clinically obtuse as not to see this coming (which is a possibility with him), or he saw it but deliberately did everything to stop conscientious professionals from meeting their societal duty anyway — his actions need to be investigated.

The intensely felt disagreements over how to cope with the problem are a demonstration of the political divide that we’re riven by. This is reflected in the recent election and in its contentious aftermath. Now, I have to admit, I can’t understand this and don’t see a rational explanation. It appears to be a manifestation of some very pernicious dynamic that has invaded our national psyche.

The APA and Lieberman are also responsible for the disagreements within the mental health profession. There was hardly any dispute or lack of consensus around Donald Trump’s dangerousness; there was only disagreement over “the Goldwater rule,” after the APA decided to turn it into a gag order with the Trump presidency, with Lieberman as its greatest champion. More than half of psychiatrists disagreed with the current form because it did not fit with scientific research or ethical principles. The “pernicious dynamic that has invaded our national psyche” was fueled and facilitated by the APA, over the psychiatrically obvious paths to our collective mental health, and this needs to be investigated.

On the basis of what we know from studying the psychiatric effects on people from past disasters, human-made or natural, we can estimate the increments in different mental health conditions that will develop as a result of this moment. We can predict the increases in population frequencies for such conditions as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, attempted suicide, and violence (domestic or criminal) within certain confidence intervals.

Exactly so. All that has happened was predictable and predicted, and why Lieberman fought off sound, science-based expressions of concern, when the nation still had time to act, must be investigated.

Modeling could potentially allow us to enact public mental health initiatives to try to preempt or mitigate the sequelae of these conditions. We should be doing this, but we’re not. Despite the consensus that there’s going to be a considerable psychiatric aftermath to this pandemic, there’s no action being taken to mitigate it.

Lieberman spent his time, influence, and effort to block mental health professionals from fulfilling their responsibility to society and thereby brought on immeasurable harm to public mental health. While the exponential spread of the “considerable psychiatric aftermath” of his actions is incalculable, for what can be measured, he needs to be investigated. His conflicts of interest, his unusual affinity for a societally-destructive government and mentally-impaired president, and his continual seeking of high positions, in spite of his failures, need to be examined to mitigate further societal damage and to keep dangerous personalities out of important positions.

***

I continue below with a “translation” of the rest of his speech, by quoting his words and then interpreting them to find out what he is really revealing about himself:

On the one hand, the best and the brightest of our infectious disease and public health scientists and experts are telling us how to contain the virus, how long it’s going to be with us, and when it will be eradicated by the vaccines, and we can plan to normalize…. But now, many are simply not following the expert advice on protective measures [but] actively rebelling against it and encouraging others to do so as well.

On the one hand, the most conscientious and concerned mental health experts were telling us how to contain the president’s dangers, how it would spread and compromise our ability even to control the virus, and how intervention could help, so that we could begin to normalize…. But a handful of players with ulterior motives, such as Lieberman, suppressed expert advice on societal protection, actively denouncing experts and enlisting others (especially the media) to do so as well.

What is this? People exercising their individual freedoms, their freedom of speech, their self-determination? Give me a break. The notion that people have freedoms that empower them to ignore the certainties of science and data, and in doing so, countermand the public good and national interest just to satisfy their own personal whims is complete crap.

What is this? Lieberman exercising his individual freedom, when he is not only failing his professional societal responsibility but stopping others from meeting it as well? Give me a break. The notion that it is Lieberman’s freedom to ignore the standards of science and data, and in doing so, countermand the public good and national interest just to satisfy his own personal ambitions is complete crap.

Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Well, in this case, we see large numbers of people using the American ethos of rugged individualism, self-determination, and “don’t tread on me” to basically mean, “I’m going to do whatever I want and you can’t tell me what to do, even if it’s the right and necessary thing. Wearing a mask is bad. Don’t tell me I can’t eat inside a restaurant. Don’t tell me I can’t get together if I want to have a party.”

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, well, in this case, we see Lieberman using the ethos of psychiatric ethics, professionalism, and “be cautious when speaking about public figures” to basically mean, “I’m going to shut you down as I want and you can’t do anything about it, even if it’s the right and necessary thing. Inconveniencing a power figure is bad. Don’t tell me I can’t protect him in exchange for favors. Don’t tell me I can’t twist ethics around if I want to use it to get ahead.”

This is nothing more than puerile narcissism. The COVID virus takes days to produce symptoms and does not severely incapacitate or kill everybody it infects. But I guarantee you that if instead this was Ebola, or nuclear fallout in the atmosphere causing everyone who went outside to immediately become sick or die, there wouldn’t be any questioning expert advice. Nobody would be bitching. But because you can’t see the effects immediately and instead need to use an intellectual process to understand and follow the advice of experts, and because at the same time people are being egged on by certain government officials and political elements, too many people are ignoring the advice. They think that if they can’t see it and don’t feel it, it’s not real. And they’re taking a contrarian position that’s jeopardizing the nation’s health and well-being.

This is nothing more than puerile narcissism. The president’s dangerous symptoms had a chance to spread over years and does not get easily detected in all the domains it destroys. But I guarantee you that if instead this was instant civil war, or nuclear fallout in the atmosphere causing everyone who went outside to immediately become sick or die, there wouldn’t be any questioning expert advice. Not even Lieberman would be able to lie. But because you can’t see the effects immediately and instead need to use a thoughtful process to understand and follow the explanation of experts, and because at the same time the likes of Lieberman can egg on myths and popular misconceptions, too many people are ignoring the advice. They think that if they can’t see it and don’t feel it, psychiatry’s not real. And they’re taking a position of denial that’s jeopardizing the nation’s health and well-being.

That’s just abominable, and it’s unacceptable. All Americans have to be embarrassed by what’s happening. Things were bad enough with the pandemic and the destruction that it’s causing, and we’re going to have to pick ourselves up in the aftermath. But we’re prolonging the agony of this national nightmare by fighting amongst ourselves about how we should deal with it. And this is leading to a worsening of the problem. It’s self-defeating. It defies reason.

That’s just abominable, and it’s unacceptable. All Americans have to be pitied for what’s happened. Things were bad enough with the lack of knowledge and stigma surrounding mental health problems, and we’re going to have to pick up a lot of pieces in the aftermath of Lieberman’s actions. But we’re prolonging the agony of this national nightmare by having to fight the disinformation that Lieberman and the APA have already promulgated. And this is leading to a worsening of ignorance about mental health. It’s self-defeating. It defies reason.

From a macro clinical-psychological perspective, what is happening is a regression of our national psyche to a more primitive, childlike state. We’re a young country compared to those in Europe and Asia, but in our approximately 250 years of existence, we have become a beacon of freedom and enlightenment to the rest of the world. What we’ve now done is reverse direction, devolving into a petulant, self-consumed adolescent mentality.

From a macro clinical-psychological perspective, what is happening is a regression of our national psyche to a more primitive, childlike state. Psychiatry’s a young field compared to the rest of medicine, but in its approximately 175 years of existence, it has increasingly adopted standards of humane and enlightened approaches to the mentally disordered. What Lieberman and the APA have now done is reverse direction, devolving it into an isolated, self-absorbed, and stigmatized field (that has nothing to offer society).

Continuing on this regressive trajectory would ensure a once-great civilization coming apart at the seams. But if this is a temporary blip from which we’re going to recover, as I can only hope it is, the country can instead right itself and continue on a course that fulfills our great national destiny as the most successful country in the history of the world.

Continuing on this regressive trajectory would ensure a once-respectable field coming apart at the seams. But if this phase of corruption is a temporary blip from which it’s going to recover, as I can only hope it is, the field can instead right itself and continue on a course that fulfills its place as an important healing specialty in the history of medicine.

Here ends my “translation” of Lieberman’s speech, which is performed on the premise that we can learn a lot about some people — especially those who exhibit projection — by what they say of others.

***

Returning to the issue of Lieberman’s pursuit of power under the federal government: what would it mean for the rest of society when someone who places “politics before his profession and public health” — to use a colleague’s words about Lieberman — continues to “fail upward”? It would reward and attract more of such behavior, not to mention the immense damage he directly portends where another candidate might have brought benefit. Past behavior is indicative of future behavior, and the incalculable harm to society that one psychiatrist inflicted by enabling and empowering a dangerous president who told more than 30,000 lies, lost the U.S. almost 500,000 lives, and cost the near-loss of our democracy should not be ignored. Lieberman must be investigated, no matter his words or the blindness to his own behavior (or precisely because of these things).

If we were to ask how and why a U.S. president was allowed to kill more Americans in one year than all the terrorists and foreign enemies combined in one hundred years, the answer will lie in those willing to sacrifice any level of society for personal benefit, such as Lieberman. We need to look no further than the articles he wrote in implicit support of Donald Trump, the lies he spread against his colleagues, and the advantages he reaped. To return to the medical principles of justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence, and the psychiatric mandate of our “responsibility … to society,” we must first keep those who would harm society out of government.

Forensic psychiatrist, violence expert, president of the World Mental Health Coalition (worldmhc.org), and editor of "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”

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