… The Harder They Fall

Bandy X. Lee
5 min readFeb 28, 2022

I once called Jeffrey Lieberman “the Donald Trump of Psychiatry.”

The casual way with which he called a dark-skinned Sudanese model a “freak of nature” was merely a surface manifestation of a lifetime of denigration and mistreatment of minorities and women. He is now suspended from his position as psychiatry department chair at Columbia and was asked to resign as chief psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. It is a step in the right direction, but how much more harm could have been mitigated if he were called out sooner?

I first crossed paths with him when I was invited to speak at a Columbia-Cornell event with an esteemed, world-renowned colleague in 2017, when he intruded, setting aside the two meticulous woman conference organizers. I had previously seen him put down even highly respected scholars if they were women, and here I was a woman and minority. At this event, he behaved as if he were the authority on the topic at hand, even though he was without minimal preparation and, frankly, minimal knowledge.

He rose to prominence through profound ties with the pharmaceutical industry and his willingness to conduct Nazi doctor-like experiments on (mostly minority) adolescents. In another country, he may have been shunned for violating others’ rights, but in a culture where “winning” counts above all else, the New England Journal of Medicine regularly published him and the New York Times regularly featured him. His destructiveness showed in other ways: he took over one of the most highly regarded psychiatry departments, known among other things for its historic psychoanalytic program, and then proceeded almost to destroy that program — it was saved only by the efforts of others. His 2015 book, Shrinks, is a naked revisionist history of psychiatry intended to elevate his own area of biological psychiatry at the expense of all other areas, which also happens to toe the pharmaceutical-industry line.

When a group of colleagues and I felt that the mental unfitness of a U.S. president was dire enough for us to need to speak up, we published in 2017 The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, which became an instant New York Times bestseller. We did so after a rigorous conference delineating how our primary professional duty to protect society superseded any etiquette we owed a political figure. Within three months, we raised the issue of the president’s mental fitness to the number one topic of national conversation.

Whereas I and my colleagues were cautious about the network and cable programs we accepted to speak on, Lieberman aggressively inserted himself on every program we turned down in order to denounce us and to present himself as the paragon of ethics. He compared us to “Nazi and Soviet psychiatrists,” apparently not recognizing that one of the contributors of our book is the author of Nazi Doctors, which outlines the dangers of complying with authoritarian regimes. Others include a seminal author on trauma and recovery, whose work transformed the way we approach family violence, and a prominent scholar on public health approaches to violence prevention, called upon by governments around the world. When a noted historian remarked that our book contained “the most eminent psychiatrists on the planet,” Lieberman snapped back: “They’re not so eminent!”

This was a time when the nation was looking to mental health professionals for guidance, and we felt the obligation to share our training and familiarity in recognizing the then-president’s dangerous psychology, which remain accurate to this day. Indeed, our warnings that psychological dangers would spread to social, cultural, civic, and geopolitical dangers have come true, with the very timeline we estimated. We spoke to over fifty Congress members, and the most respected journalists of our day believed that a needed intervention was finally at hand because of our work.

Yet, just then, the American Psychiatric Association and the New York Times denounced us, which had the effect of blacking us out of the major media. Lieberman’s influence was visible in all this, for the APA press release used his language in accusing us of “use of psychiatry as a political tool” and doing so for “self-aggrandizing purposes,” echoing his assertions. He had already published numerous articles calling our work, “tawdry, indulgent, fatuous, tabloid psychiatry,” to the point where the now-disgraced White House physician, Ronny Jackson, repeated that it was “tabloid psychiatry” (of course, neither gave disclaimers that the former was relentlessly seeking a mental health position in the administration and the latter was not even eligible to declare his own employer and commander-in-chief “mentally fit,” especially without mental health training).

To this day, the only full-page opinion article by a psychiatrist that the New York Times published remains Lieberman’s, while the chief opinion editor who managed to print an unprecedented article by an “anonymous” White House official could not publish ours, despite multiple attempts. Indeed, over the course of the presidency, I was invited to over 70 media appearances that were uniformly canceled or recorded and then removed before airing. Over a dozen articles for which I was interviewed were canceled or published without my quotes, often to the surprise of seasoned reporters, for the New York Times alone. We were flooded with messages: “Where are the psychiatrists? Where are the psychologists?” not knowing that we were silenced from the outside.

I believe this has had extraordinary consequences for the nation, not to mention for my career. It is unlikely, for example, that the American Psychiatric Association would have been able to denounce me, or Yale School of Medicine to dismiss me, if not for Lieberman’s attacks. The reason they gave was “the Goldwater rule,” which Lieberman used as an excuse to accuse us, even as he himself violated the “rule” by actually diagnosing — whereas my colleagues and I never diagnosed — but the difference was that his comments protected the then-president, as well as APA funding.

Since the APA’s success at silencing mental health professionals — mainly through a gross misinterpretation and misuse of “the Goldwater rule” — it received unprecedented government funding, opposite the trend of other science organizations under the Trump administration; moved to one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Washington, DC, from its Virginia location; and is now shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington lobbyists. Lieberman himself received windfalls of government grants after he intervened on behalf of the former president. Setting aside professional ethics and medical obligations to support power — and even calling it “ethics” — has been seen before. It is precisely what the Declaration of Geneva was instituted to prevent after the experience of Nazism, by clarifying that technical adherence or blind obeisance to power should not take precedence over the humanitarian goals of medicine.

Now, after the catastrophic Ukraine situation, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the escalating problem of domestic terrorism, the pandemic that was vastly worse than necessary, and the slow death of our democracy, I cannot help but wonder: what if Donald Trump were held accountable sooner? What if Lieberman?

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Bandy X. Lee

Forensic psychiatrist, violence expert, president of the World Mental Health Coalition (worldmhc.org), and New York Times bestselling author.