Yale psychiatrist Bandy Lee: Impeachment hearings must include analysis of Trump's mental health

Yale professor says Trump's GOP enablers, like Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, may suffer from "shared psychosis"

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published December 5, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

Dr. Bandy Lee and Donald Trump (Yale/Andrew Spear/Getty Images)
Dr. Bandy Lee and Donald Trump (Yale/Andrew Spear/Getty Images)

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to hear from a panel of legal scholars who provided a constitutional analysis of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump. A group of psychiatry professors from around the country are calling on the committee to also impanel experts in psychology to analyze the president's mental health and consider his state of mind as part of the ongoing investigation.

Bandy X. Lee, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and president of the World Mental Health Organization, has spoken out about the president's mental health for years. She is the editor of "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President" and convened a conference on Trump's mental health at Yale in 2017.

Lee, along with Dr. John Zinner and Dr. Jerrold Post of George Washington University and more than 400 signatories, is leading a petition to the Judiciary Committee urging lawmakers to consider the views of mental health experts as they examine the possible criminality behind the Ukraine scandal.

The petition calls for the committee to enter a statement from the mental health professionals into the official record.

"Failing to monitor or to understand the psychological aspects, or discounting them, could lead to catastrophic outcomes," the statement warns. "For these reasons, we implore Congress to take these danger signs seriously and to constrain his destructive impulses.  We and many others are available to give important relevant recommendations as well as to educate the public so that we can maximize our collective safety."

Lee told Salon that there's a tendency to see such warnings as hyperbolic "before things happen — and after things happen, people just assume that things have already happened and so they know how dangerous the president is.

"Each time he has a way of stepping up," she continued. "We need to be prepared ahead of time, not just think we know afterwards," even if that means talking about touchy issues of a public figure's mental health "honestly, rather than what might be considered palatable."

Lee spoke to Salon about the petition, the impeachment inquiry's impact on Trump's state of mind, her view on the president's enablers, the criticism she has received for speaking out publicly about the president's mental health, and whether all presidential candidates should undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You're leading a petition to the House Judiciary Committee in the impeachment inquiry. What do you hope this will accomplish?

We've been warning against the president's psychological dangers for quite some time. And we are currently seeing them accelerate with the impeachment proceedings, as well as multiple pressures that are also obvious to the public. Loss of court cases and the impeachment inquiry continually bring up facts that do not favor him. So we would like to propose to the Judiciary Committee that it consider mental health parallel to its investigation of criminality.

You said you want Congress to take mental health into consideration. What does that look like? How do you want Congress to handle your input?

Initially, we were proposing to testify. But given the volatility of the president and his worsening condition, that should also be obvious for the public to see, in terms of his increased tweets, his greater attacks, his doubling down on unreality. These are all very concerning signs and more alarming to psychological professionals because of what they imply.

So initially, we were proposing to testify for the committee, but now we are suggesting private consultation, because we see concerning signs accelerate ... [and we] are afraid that a public testimony would provoke the president further.

How have you observed the president's behavior changing as the impeachment probe has ramped up?

When the impeachment inquiry was first announced, most people breathed a sigh of relief. But we were very concerned that psychologically he would worsen. So we put out an urgent letter to Congress, signed by 250 mental health professionals, asking for constraining measures at the same time as proceeding with impeachment. Within three days of our letter, he withdrew troops from northern Syria, allowed the massacre of our allies and handed over dominance to our enemies. This was the kind of thing we were afraid of.

It happened and we see signs of another such incident, if not worse, happening, from the daily observable psychological signs. In terms of obvious behavior, his pardoning the war criminals who were already convicted or being charged by the military and enlisting them onto his campaign. His attack of Marie Yovanovitch during her testimony, when she was expressing that she felt intimidated and threatened by the president. He basically demonstrated how he intimidated and threatened people during the testimony itself.

And most recently, when the former FBI lawyer Lisa Page responded to his taunting of her during the rally by giving an interview, the president again put out a tweet, pretty much condemning her and again ridiculing her and attacking her. These are precisely the reasons why we warned since the beginning that the president was dangerous. And now we are learning that the signs are increasing in intensity and frequency, which indicates to us that the dangers are also accelerating. We should respond to these signs in advance of things happening. Prevention is, of course, much less costly than trying to recuperate and patch up after things have happened.

What does it tell you as a psychiatrist when you see Republicans like Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan defend what President Trump does, and spin it as a positive and a good thing?

I have also spoken about shared psychosis. Psychosis is a severe condition of mental impairment when you lose touch with reality, and shared psychosis happens when a highly compromised person is exposed to other people who would be otherwise healthy. But because of the close contact, healthy people take on the symptoms of the person who is compromised. Because of the president's position and his direct access to a large proportion of the population, either via Twitter or his direct rallies, there is a phenomenon of shared psychosis going on at large scale, at national scale.

How do you think that this impeachment battle affects the psychology of the public? 

The impeachment process is proceeding based on rational, legal, and political considerations, but all of the domains presume psychological health. In other words, the mental capacity to consider facts, to think rationally and logically based on reality. But these capacities are precisely what are being lost with the spread of shared psychosis.

You and a lot of psychologists, psychiatrists or therapists who have opined publicly on Trump's mental health have received a lot of criticism. How do you respond to that criticism? Why should Congress and the public take what you're saying seriously?

Psychological factors require psychological expertise, especially in the pathological realm, which most people will be unfamiliar with and underestimate, or presume to be within the wide range of human normality.

So it is incumbent on psychological professionals — I would even say an obligation — to speak up when there are signs of abnormalities, especially because mental pathology has one of its symptoms as the inability to see that one has a twisted psychology. It is incumbent on those who are familiar with these signs and are able to observe from the outside to say so.

Also, the American Psychiatric Association allowed for the spread of this misconception that we cannot speak about anything unless we have examined the president. But we're not speaking about the president's personal mental health. We're speaking about the effects of his mental pathology and behavior on the public. So we are responding to our public health responsibility, not speaking as the president's personal physician.

You've mentioned a proposal to analyze future presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Is that something you'd like to see going forward?

I think it's reasonable, given our recent experience and given the history that those with pathological personality disorders disproportionately attain positions of power and wreak havoc on societies. It is far easier to prevent than to try to intervene after things have happened. And a simple fitness-for-duty test would allow for the screening of many destructive personalities. I would advise that not just for our own country, but for the countries around the world. It would do them a lot of good.

Is there anything you'd like to add for our readers?

Yes, that we are ready to consult with the Judiciary Committee. We believe they have four academic scholars, four scholars of constitutional law speaking [on Wednesday]. I believe that mental health is just as important, if not more urgent. What is of concern right now is criminality and psychopathology. And I would say that the psychopathology is more urgent because it deals not only with deeds that have already been done but deeds that can happen, and have too high a probability of happening for us to be safe.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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