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Psychiatrist’s Racist Tweet About Model Nyakim Gatwech Draws International Condemnation & Resignation

Task Force Against Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics Joins Calls for APA President and Columbia University Psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman to Resign All Advisory and Executive Positions in Light of Blatant Racist Tweet

CCHR International
February 28, 2022

Former American Psychiatric Association president Jeffrey Lieberman, Chair of the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, has been suspended after issuing a racist post on his Twitter account about a dark-skinned model, Ms. Nyakim Gatwech. He was subsequently removed from his position as psychiatrist-in-chief at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital and forced to resigned from his role as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. [1] Lieberman tweeted in response to a photo of Ms. Gatwech, an American model of South Sudanese descent, that her skin color was possibly a “freak of nature.”  

However, Rev. Frederick Shaw, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Inglewood South Bay branch and founder of the Task Force Against Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics, says Lieberman’s subsequent apology to the model, Ms. Nyakim Gatwech, was trite and grossly inadequate for someone of his stature in psychiatry. "As an African American and human rights advocate, I am appalled that Ms. Gatwech was subject to this racial abuse.” 

Rev. Shaw called for Lieberman’s resignation from all executive and advisory positions he holds internationally, including with pharmaceutical companies—from the U.S. to Spain.

In an email to his colleagues before he was suspended, Lieberman apologized for the tweet, describing it as “racist and sexist.” He added that he was “deeply ashamed” of his “prejudices and stereotypical assumptions.”  

But Rev Shaw said it was “public relations rhetoric. This is no light-weight psychiatrist, he’s the former head of the American Psychiatric Association, and has been a researcher for the National Institute of Mental Health and served on its National Advisory Mental Health Council; he also served on the advisory board of the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee for Neuropharmacologic and Psychopharmacologic Drugs and has been on the editorial boards of numerous journals. We shall approach all of them to have Dr. Lieberman be removed as an expert and denied future official affiliations.”

The New York state Office of Mental Health, which operates the New York State Psychiatric Institute, asked Lieberman to resign as director, writing:

“The Office of Mental Health took immediate action after learning of Dr. Lieberman’s offensive and inappropriate comments on social media. As of February 22, he is no longer affiliated with OMH or the State of New York,” said agency spokesperson Jessica Zahn. [2] The government-funded position with the New York State Psychiatric Institute paid Lieberman almost $250,000 annually in 2020 and 2021, according to payroll records. [8]

Dr. Elle Lett, a postdoctoral fellow in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times, “To not understand how racist language like that is harmful when your profession is supposed to care for the mental health of people makes you unqualified to be a psychiatrist at all, let alone the chief of the top program.” [1]  "This man held the sentiments that shaped the department. This is a reckoning for institutional change," Lett told THE CITY. "I don't trust him or the people he trained of being stewards of mental health to Black women." [2]

“Jeffrey Lieberman’s comment is not surprising given psychiatry’s long history of fueling racism and harming African Americans and minorities,” Rev. Shaw said.

In 2021, the APA issued a formal apology over what it called psychiatry’s “role in perpetrating structural racism” and “history of actions…that hurt Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” (BIPOC). It took them over 170 years to apologize, which the Task Force rejected at the time.  APA’s response to Lieberman’s comment was unremarkable and self-serving. Its Board of Trustees issued a statement, saying it "reiterates its position that both racism and sexism harm the APA as an organization, the field of psychiatry, and the people and communities we serve. Past APA presidents do not speak for, or on behalf of, the APA." [3c]

Rev. Shaw says the APA should take a much stronger stand—removing Lieberman’s past presidential title and issuing other sanctions. 

Lieberman’s post, with a photo of Ms. Gatweck, was not only racist but also sexist. “It is not a work of art made of black stone or granite,” read the original tweet, published by a user with the handle @zg4ever. Further, he wrote that Gatwech “is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the darkest skin on Earth. But in 2020, Guinness tweeted and clarified that it does not monitor skin tone.” [2]

Rev. Shaw, also a spokesperson for the mental health watchdog Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, which helped found the Task Force Against Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics, notes examples of psychiatry’s racist history:

  • In 1792 Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry,” declared that African American’s skin color derived from a “disease” called Negritude, which he theorized was a form of leprosy. The “cure” was when their skin turned “white.” [4]
  • In the 1950s U.S. psychiatrist J.C. Carothers argued that in many ways the African resembles a European 8- or 9-year-old child in his reaction to the environment. He compared Africans to a “leucotomized European.” [5]
  • 1960s: Psychiatrists claimed civil rights protests caused violent “schizophrenic” symptoms in “Negro populations,” inventing the diagnosis to describe this as “protest psychosis.” African American men were said to have developed “hostile and aggressive feelings” and “delusional anti-whiteness after listening to civil rights leaders.” Ads for antipsychotics used African symbols to reflect so-called “violent traits” in Blacks. [6]
  • 1990s: NIMH Director, psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin, compared Black youth to “hyperaggressive” and “hypersexual” monkeys in a jungle who only want to kill one another, have sex and reproduce. He was forced to resign. He helped developed a “Violence Initiative” program to look for a “violent” gene in African Americans and Hispanics that could be controlled by psychiatric drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac—known to cause violent and suicidal behavior. [7]

Rev. Shaw rejects explanations for Lieberman’s behavior, including Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, who described the episode as “unfortunate” and said it “really highlights how deep and pervasive some of our own unconscious biases can be.” [1]

“I don’t believe this was some ‘unconscious’ bias,” Shaw said. “You could never excuse slave owners’ brutality by saying they were ‘unconsciously’ indoctrinated in the fraudulent idea that Africans were genetically inferior to white humans, justifying their enslavement.”

Comments from others include:

  • “We condemn the racism and sexism reflected in Dr. Lieberman’s tweet and acknowledge and share the hurt, sadness, confusion, and distressing emotions you may be feeling,” Thomas Smith, the new acting director of the New York Psychiatric Institute and other leaders said in an email to staff. [1]
  • “It's unconscionable that anyone would post that anywhere--it is nothing but hurtful and propagates racism,'. 'That it was a psychiatrist in such a position of power and authority makes it that much worse. An apology is no longer enough--that is just words.” - Dr. Daniel Block, psychiatrist [9]
  • A dozen doctors called the Coalition of Concerned Analysts of Color at Columbia sent a mass email to the psychiatric department demanding Lieberman's resignation, condemning his beliefs and stating: “We do we support a department that continues to employ anyone holding them….” [8]
  • The Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons wrote to leaders at four institutions affiliated with Lieberman questioning if New York Presbyterian Hospital is safe for students and patients of color. [3c]

Lieberman’s Past Comments: “self-promotional and condescending” ….

Lieberman has a controversial past, including being irrationally critical of anyone opposing his or psychiatry’s works—where he has made accusations of the type that are now being similarly directed at him, but with merit.

  • In 2013, Lieberman was APA president when the organization’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was released, garnering international criticism from mental health professionals with threats to boycott its use. Lieberman told Psychiatric News that in 2014, he hired a public relations firm to address psychiatrists being “stigmatized” in the wake of this outcry over the manual. Psychologist Philip Hickey, Ph.D. commented, “Psychiatry remains blind to the fact that it is its own spurious pathologizing of its clients that creates the stigma. It has no interest in genuine reform, but instead is embarked on a tawdry PR campaign to whitewash its transgressions and sell its concepts to the media, stakeholders, and the general public.” [9]
  • “Tawdry PR explains both Lieberman’s comments at that time and today,” Rev. Shaw opined. Lieberman justified the DSM-5, stating “…it represents a system that is as good as we can have, given our current state of knowledge” and psychiatry has “no better alternative.” [10]  Dr. Judy Stone, writing in Scientific American, commented on Lieberman’s criticism of those expressing disfavor toward DSM-5. She called his views “self-promotional and condescending,” adding that he “stoops to disparaging characterizations of critics….” Stone quipped: “…it makes me wonder if there is a DSM-5 diagnosis for someone who is self-serving, can’t accept criticism, and believes critics are prejudiced bigots?” [11]
  • Further, Dr. Stone wrote: “I was very disappointed to see Dr. Lieberman’s shallow, self-serving and evidence-free diatribe appear in Scientific American as a guest opinion. He failed to reveal important conflicts of interest. He made serious claims for which he presented no evidence. He has made thinly veiled personal attacks on his critics, without offering anything substantive to counter rationally.”
  • With Frederick Goodwin targeting African American children to be drugged with Prozac in the late eighties to “curb” their supposed “violence,” it is notable that in 1991, Lieberman was a member of the FDA’s Pharmacologic Drugs Advisory Board, that ignored evidence that Prozac could cause violent and suicidal behavior. At the time, Lieberman had financial ties to antidepressant makers. [12] Despite damning evidence, the committee refused to support a warning that Prozac or antidepressants could cause violent/suicidal behavior.  (Since then, dozens of school shootings have been linked to teens taking antidepressants documented to cause hostility.)
  • In 1997, Lieberman helped with the formation of the International Early Psychosis Association, along with Australian psychiatrist, Patrick McGorry. Between 2002 and  2010, Lieberman was Vice President for the group’s North America sector and in 2014, was Vice President for the entire group. McGorry came under criticism for promoting the theory of “Psychosis-Risk Syndrome” for which individuals from age 14 could be arbitrarily determined to be at risk or developing psychosis and drugged with antipsychotics before the onset of psychosis to “prevent” it.  The problem was that the “diagnosis” had a more than 80% false positive rate and psychosis is a side effect of antipsychotics. [13]  Lieberman and McGorry are on the Editorial Board of The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry—a position Lieberman should resign from.
  • In 2003, in response to British regulators warning doctors not to prescribe antidepressants to those aged 18 and younger because of the risk of suicide, Lieberman told The New York Times, ''I think they're really overreacting. This is really going way too far, and in the process doing more harm than good.'' [14] However, in 2004, the FDA also found that antidepressant use in youngsters and young adults could cause suicidal behavior. It mandated manufacturers place a black box notice on drug packaging, warning of the risk of suicide. After the FDA issued the warning, Lieberman’s rhetoric changed, now claiming there “wasn't sufficient evidence to support a link between these drugs and suicide,” in 1991.
  • One former trainee of Lieberman told THE CITY in the wake of his current racist comments that no one was "surprised" by his remarks; "Everyone had a very low opinion of him but no one says or does anything about it." She said he was very powerful, that "If you write a grant, he has to write the letter of support," she added. [8]
  • Others who worked with Lieberman described him as dismissive of women and people of color and prone to making misogynistic comments. "He's a destructive personality who has done a great deal of damage, who is only now being held accountable after decades of impunity," said Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and violence expert. "We need to set limits on individuals who bully and strong arm to amass power for themselves while at the same time injuring individuals and society." [8]
  • Lee recounted to THE CITY how he "barged" into a conference she was invited to speak at, disregarding a Columbia colleague who organized the event. “The brazenness with which he seemed to believe he could do something like this is something I never experienced in a colleague, let alone a chairman," Lee said.

Rev. Shaw adds:

“This is the character of the man who now—in response to his racist comments said: ‘An apology from me to the Black community, to women, and to all of you is not enough. I’ve hurt many, and I am beginning to understand the work ahead to make needed personal changes and over time to regain your trust.’” [1] 

Rev. Shaw called the apology self-serving and reiterated that Lieberman should be denounced internationally and any pharmaceutical company affiliations should remove him as a speaker, consultant, advisory board member or researcher.  In December 2020, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company in Spain, announced collaboration with Lieberman and other researchers from Columbia University that the Task Force will seek revocation of the relationship. [14]

As one commentary noted,Lieberman's actions have spurred a broader conversation about biases in the medical field, where his position afforded him a tremendous amount of power over career-defining grants and fellowships, according to interviews with people who've worked with him, some of whom did not want to be named publicly for fear of retribution.” [8]

Rev. Shaw’s Task Force will write to government agencies and private companies and organizations to ask them to remove Lieberman as one of their experts, and will also contact psychiatric agencies or groups planning on having him as a speaker.

The Task Force Against Racism and Modern-Day Eugenics comprises over 100 African American community members that want to see racism eliminated from the mental health field and greater accountability instituted in the psychiatric industry for racist and harmful treatment of minorities.


[1] Lola Fadulu, “Columbia Psychiatry Chair Suspended After Tweet About Dark-Skinned Model: The post from Jeffrey Lieberman, which described the model as possibly a ‘freak of nature,’ drew negative attention from medical professionals,” The New York Times, 23 Feb 2022, Updated 24 Feb 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/nyregion/columbia-jeffrey-lieberman.html

[2] Josefa Velasquez “A Racist Tweet by Columbia Psychiatry Chair Ripples Through New York’s Elite Medical Circles,” New York Post, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.thecity.nyc/2022/2/24/22949146/racist-tweet-columbia-psychiatry-chair-jeffrey-lieberman-new-york-medical-elite

[3] (a) Megan Brooks, “APA Apologizes for Past Support of Racism in Psychiatry,” Medscape, 19 Jan 2019, https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/944352?src=wnl_edit_tpal&uac=345404PY&impID=3143084&faf=1;  (b) Judith Warne, “Psychiatry Confronts Its Racist Past, and Tries to Make Amends: But there is a lot to apologize for — from Reconstruction to today’ The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/health/psychiatry-racism-black-americans.html; (c)  Anna Madaris Miller, “Top psychiatrist suspended after tweeting about a Black model, using the phrase 'freak of nature,'” Insider, 24 Feb 2022, https://www.insider.com/columbia-psychiatrist-jeffrey-lieberman-suspended-tweet-black-model-2022-2

[4]  Prof. Thomas Szasz, M.D., The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement, Jan. 1970, p. 154

[5] Graham Richards, Race, Racism and Psychology Towards A Reflexive History, (Routledge, London, New York, 9 Mar. 1997, rev. 2004) https://epdf.pub/race-racism-and-psychology-towards-a-reflexive-history.html

[6] Jonathan M. Metzl, The Protest Psychosis, How Schizophrenia became a Black Disease, (Beacon Press, Boston, 2009), pp. xii, xiv, p. 101

[7] “U.S. Hasn't Given Up Linking Genes to Crime,” The New York Times, 18 Sept, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/18/opinion/l-us-hasn-t-given-up-linking-genes-to-crime-153192.html

[8] Josefa Velasquez “A Racist Tweet By Columbia Psychiatry Chair Ripples Through New York's Elite Medical Circles,” The City, 24 Feb. 2022, https://patch.com/new-york/new-york-city/racist-tweet-columbia-psychiatry-chair-ripples-through-new-yorks-elite

[9] “Why Psychiatry Sees Itself as a Dying Industry: A Resource on its Failures and Critics,” Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, 8 Mar. 2021, https://www.cchrint.org/2021/03/08/resource-on-why-psychiatry-is-upset-about-its-failures-and-critics/  Citing: Philip Hickey, Ph.D., “The APA’s New Image,” Behaviorism and Mental Health, 25 Sept. 2015, https://www.behaviorismandmentalhealth.com/2015/09/25/the-apas-new-image/

[10] Michael Vlessides, “The Past, Present, and Future of the DSM,” Medscape, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/942694;

[11] Judy Stone, “Anti-Psychiatry Prejudice? A response to Dr. Lieberman,” Scientific American, 24 May 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/molecules-to-medicine/anti-psychiatry-prejudice-a-response-to-dr-lieberman/

[12] Talking Back to Prozac: What Doctors Aren't Telling You About Today's Most Controversial Drug Mass Market, 1994, pp. 198, 285

[13] Sue Dunlevy, “US expert slams Patrick McGorry’s psychosis model,” The Australian, 14 June 2011, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/us-expert-slams-patrick-mcgorrys-psychosis-model/news-story/17af8dc06430231afbf44bc9df2d38bf

[14] Erica Goode, “British Warning on Antidepressant Use for Youth,” The New York Times, 11 Dec. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/11/world/british-warning-on-antidepressant-use-for-youth.html

[15] “ORYZON Launches Pioneering Schizophrenia Precision Medicine Study In Collaboration With Columbia Psychiatry,” EIN Newswire, provided by Globe Newswire, 17 Dec. 2020, https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/532992356/oryzon-launches-pioneering-schizophrenia-precision-medicine-study-in-collaboration-with-columbia-psychiatry

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