The Yale College Democrats on Wednesday evening hosted Bandy Lee MED ’94 DIV ’95, the Yale psychiatrist who informed Congress that President Donald Trump is a danger to society because of his mental health. During the hourlong public event, Lee spoke of the impact an unstable public leader can have on society and of medical professionals’ duty to speak up.
“I’ve been concerned about the deteriorating state of public mental health, and part of that showed up in the attraction and election of an impaired leader in the first place — pathology attracts pathology,” Lee said during the public event. “If we were able to educate people [enough], we could prevent a lot of these things.”
The morning after Trump’s election, Lee said, dozens of people contacted her saying they were “basically afraid of the violence that was to come.” Lee is trained in violence prevention, and she co-founded Yale’s Violence and Health Study Group at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. At the moment, she leads a project group for the World Health Organization’s Violence Prevention Alliance.
Lee said she felt an obligation to warn the public about Trump’s mental health after recognizing many of the qualities she has seen in violent individuals she has worked with.
“I couldn’t ignore the fact as a psychiatrist that this presidency was going to be different,” she said.
In December and January, Lee briefed Republican and Democratic congressmen on Trump’s mental state, warning that the president is a danger to society. She is also the editor of the New York Times best-seller “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” published in October 2017, which assesses the president’s mental health based on 27 accounts from medical health professionals.
“I’ve always thought about [Trump’s popularity and election] in a very political, economic and social lens, but thinking about it from a medical standpoint is driving at the same issue but obviously from a different perspective and one that adds a lot to the conversation,” said Jordan Cozby ’20 president of the Yale College Democrats.
Lee stressed that she did not diagnose Trump when she spoke out about his mental state to congressmen; rather she assessed the danger he poses to the public. She noted that the president’s tendency to boast about sexual assault, taunt nuclear power and endorse violence in key public speeches can cause harm “because [he’s] laying the groundwork for the culture of violence.”
Lee pointed out that there has been an unprecedented spike in both hate crimes and incidents of gun violence since the start of Trump’s presidential campaign, and that these are predictable reactions to his “endorsement of violence.”
“We’re not talking about his personal diagnosis but the dangers to public health, so we’re talking about the situation, not so much about the person,” Lee warned. “Mental health professionals are in agreement that this is a very dangerous situation and that something is seriously wrong, and of course we won’t diagnose unless we have information, but to say someone is dangerous, you don’t need all information, you just need information to raise alarms and then treat the person.”
Isel Burton ’20, who attended the event, said that while she may not agree with Lee’s argument that many structural American institutions are an outcome of poor health, “It implies there are legacies of unhealth in America.”
When Lee began to speak out about the threat Trump posed to the public, she said, she did not receive a lot of visible support. In fact, during a conference she organized at Yale last April to discuss the ethics of speaking out about the mental state of public figures, many of the sponsors, including the School of Public Health and the School of Nursing, dropped out when they realized Lee would be criticizing Trump. Lee stressed that medical professionals do not disagree with her views on Trump’s mental health but only about whether or not it is ethical to voice those views.
The American Psychiatric Association exacerbated this tension, she said, as two months into Trump’s presidency they expanded the “obscure” Goldwater Rule in an unprecedented way, turning it into “a gag rule.” The Goldwater Rule, which previously prevented psychiatrists from diagnosing a public figure without first personally examining them, now prohibits psychiatrists from publicly offering any comment on any aspect of a public figure. Lee said that this action runs counter to psychiatrists’ mission of promoting public health and that it is the duty of public health officials to speak up.
“We know from history and empirical evidence that silence is as harmful as active cooperation,” Lee said.
Jana Lohrova SPH ’18, previously a Yale Global Health Fellow, said the talk speaks to many of her internal struggles as a health professional in an increasingly politicized world. She said she appreciated Lee’s perspective that individual researchers have the duty to protect the health of the public and to point out the conflict within the public health community.
“Given the circumstances, I think the best we can do is trying to educate as much as possible,” Lee said. “And [speaking to students about] this kind of civic awareness, participation and actions on the part of the public will make a difference, and that is actually far more powerful than we realize.”
The Yale College Democrats was founded in the late 1950s.
Chloé Glass | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Feb 24.: A previous version of the article misstated the Goldwater Rule, in fact, this phrasing more accurately reflects the rule set out by the American Psychiatric Association.