“I never really thought of speaking up about a president as something that would be my role,” Dr. Bandy Lee told me. “I was uninvolved in politics until politics invaded my area.”
We were speaking over the phone, the only way we could communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee, a Yale-affiliated forensic psychiatrist, spoke firmly, well-versed in giving interviews after three years in the spotlight. She is a world expert in violence and violence prevention, most notably consulting with governments on prison reform. While her work in the public health field is fascinating, the dimension of her professional life that has attracted the most attention is her forceful opposition to President Trump.
Since the 2016 election, Lee has spearheaded a movement to shed light on what she believes is the dangerous mental condition of the president. She has organized a coalition of mental health experts similarly concerned with the president’s mental state, and in October 2017, she published “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” a book of essays by numerous mental health professionals assessing the president’s mental aptitude. Last December, as the presidential impeachment proceedings came to a head, Congress received a petition led by Lee and two other mental health professionals. The statement accompanying the petition claimed that the president’s mental fitness was rapidly declining. In the petition signed by 350 other health professionals, the trio wrote that the president had the “real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation.”
Although she characterizes her pre-2016 self as largely apolitical, Lee believes that as a psychiatrist, she is “uniquely trained to address the problems of the presidency.” Lee has long seen the president’s mental instability as a public health crisis, and his actions during the pandemic have only provided further proof. As international criticism of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic mounts, Lee believes that the president’s mental condition is key to understanding his behavior.
Lee knew early on that she wanted to practice medicine. She was inspired by her grandfather, who was a physician in South Korea. Lee speaks fondly of him as a doctor who worked long hours and never turned away a patient.
“I knew I wanted to do psychiatry because my grandfather’s influence was mainly psychological and social,” she said. “I felt like he really talked to his patients and imparted a lot of wisdom to them.”
She also attributes her work with at-risk populations to her childhood, growing up in the Bronx. As a teenager, she tutored students in Harlem who were directly exposed to violence.
Although Lee knew that she wanted to pursue medicine, she began an undergraduate degree at Columbia studying physics and comparative literature. However, she was given an opportunity to get a head start on her career when she was accepted into the Yale School of Medicine early as the youngest in her class. At medical school, Lee focused on studying violence’s intersection with psychiatry. However, she found that she wanted to take a more holistic approach to the issues that she was studying. As a result, she concurrently completed a master of divinity at the Yale Divinity School.
“In addition to the body, I thought I would cover the spirit and the full range of human experience,” Lee said. “It actually turned out to be quite formative and informative for my practice because when people are in dire situations, such as dealing with a psychiatric problem or are in crisis in prison, spirituality is often the first thing they go to.”
After medical school, she completed a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. During her training there, she found that violence was not commonly considered to be within the domain of psychiatry, a distinction she would challenge over the course of her career. She was particularly interested in the societal factors of violence and how they could affect both the prevention and treatment of violence within communities.
She got the chance to merge her passion for global violence prevention with policymaking in 2002, when she began to consult with the World Health Organization (WHO). She became involved with the WHO’s World Report on Violence and Health, which studied violence through a public health lens.
This scholarly emphasis on global violence prevention has translated to Lee’s other efforts. Within the United States, several states have consulted her for advice on their prison programs. Most famously, she helped institute reforms on Rikers Island, an infamous New York City prison. She has helped develop violence prevention programs and other psychiatric services for those who are incarcerated.
Throughout her career, Lee remained acutely aware of the socioeconomic influences that her patients experience — what she refers to as “structural violence.”
Currently, she works as a clinical faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine and has consulted with clinics at the Yale Law School. Lee sees patients in a prison hospital and continues to advise on state prison reforms. Within the medical school’s Law and Psychiatry Division, Lee has taught forensic psychiatry, which utilizes psychiatric expertise in legislation and trials. In 2013, she designed a global health course called “Violence: Causes and Cures,” a comprehensive course on violence’s roots and treatments. There was an overwhelming demand for the course, and Lee later wrote a textbook based on the class.
The overall scope of Lee’s career has been shaped by what she calls a “social consciousness,” which she derived from her mother and grandmother.
Although she had been involved in making international policy regarding violence prevention, Lee claims that she paid little attention to domestic politics before the election of Donald Trump. In the months before the 2016 election, Lee’s mother grew ill and later passed away from glioblastoma. She was preoccupied with caring for her mother and hardly even paid attention to the campaign.
However, the morning after the election, she felt as though she had been summoned to speak up about the president-elect. She said, “I was flooded with phone calls and emails because people were worried and in their minds, I was a violence expert… [They] were kind of looking to me as to what we should do,” Lee said.
In April 2017, Lee hosted a conference at the Yale medical school regarding the professional ethics of discussing the president’s mental state.
According to Lee, the conference was initially conceived to discuss health policy, covering topics such as refugees, climate change and universal health care. However, Lee decided to change the agenda.
In March 2017, the American Psychiatric Association reaffirmed its support for the Goldwater Rule, which states that “member psychiatrists should not give professional opinions about the mental state of someone they have not personally evaluated.”
The Goldwater Rule is an ethical guideline named for American politician and former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, according to NPR. In 1964, the now-defunct Fact magazine ran an article polling psychiatrists about Goldwater’s psychological fitness to be president. After Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate, lost the race to Lyndon B. Johnson, he sued the magazine and won. As a result, the APA instituted the so-called Goldwater Rule in 1973.
In 2017, the rule was reaffirmed, in large part as a reaction to psychiatrists speaking out on the mental condition of the newly inaugurated President Trump. In February 2017, 35 mental health professionals — not including Lee — signed a letter to the New York Times expressing concern for the president’s mental fitness.
Although Lee has not been a member of the APA since 2007 and is therefore not held to its ethical guidelines, she told the News that the APA’s reaffirmation of the Goldwater Rule was an attempt to “silence psychiatrists” and described it as “alarming and unacceptable.”
To Lee, the president’s mental state overshadowed all other public health issues because “all other issues would be influenced by whether or not we could discuss and manage the critical emergency [that was] the president’s mental health.”
Dr. John Zinner, a psychiatrist at George Washington University, has also spoken out about the president’s mental fitness and worked with Lee on a number of projects in this regard. To the News, he characterized Lee as a tireless worker.
“Bandy does so much,” Zinner told the News. “I don’t know how she manages it. It’s really quite a huge job that she does, but she’s the worker, she’s the organizer.”
Lee has publicly called for President Trump to participate in a capacity evaluation that would gauge whether he is mentally fit for office. She has penned op-eds, participated in television interviews and met with members of Congress.
She has also faced opposition. Allen Frances, a Duke psychiatry professor who led the task force that wrote the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, pushed back against the psychiatric diagnoses of the president. In a letter to the New York Times, he wrote, “It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither) … Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy.”
Others have interpreted Lee’s crusade as a partisan effort to bring down the president despite her insistence that her concerns are solely public health-related. A number of far-right websites claimed that Lee did not have a medical license. This was disputed by Snopes, a fact-checking website.
In early 2018, Lee received numerous personal threats. She briefly deleted her Twitter account and did her best to avoid campus out of concern for her safety.
However, Lee hasn’t been deterred from her work. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, she believes it is more important than ever to speak out against the president.
Lee sees President Trump’s mental fitness for office as inseparable from his less-than-adequate pandemic response. The group that Lee leads, the World Mental Health Coalition, has released a “Prescription for Survival,” which argues that the president is “making a global pandemic worse.”
The prescription calls for Trump’s removal from office through the 25th Amendment, another congressional impeachment or his voluntary resignation. The 25th Amendment declares that the president can be removed if he is incapable of holding office.
Zinner acknowledged that the effort to remove the president through these methods will probably not come to fruition. He told the News, “The main thing I think we’re doing is educating people … and try[ing] to use that as part of the information that voters may use to not reelect him.”
Lee shares Zinner’s cautious optimism regarding the goal of their movement. When I asked her about the future of her advocacy regarding the president, she seemed determined to continue her work. She expressed excitement around newfound support for her coalition.
Looking towards the 2020 presidential elections, Lee said, “We’re going to try to emphasize expertise and find our way into the discussion.”