Friday, February 26, 2021

Fluorinated Medications - Revisited

I wrote a post a few years ago on the issue of fluorinated medications.  It was based on and investigation of the Fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas) and the possible induction of autism like illness from increasing amounts of fluoxetine in the water system.  The authors of this article looked at concentrations about 10 times what they currently are in wastewater. Medications of all kinds can be detected ins wastewater with the primary sources being ingested medications and excreted medications and metabolites and wasted medications.  There has been a suggestion that “wasted medications” – like full prescriptions that were either never used or only a few tablets were used should be incinerated in a plasma furnace.  That type of incineration destroys the chemical structure of medications and any chance that they could have unexpected secondary effects. 

The first fluorinated compound was the mineralocorticoid fludrocortisone or Florinef in 1955. I recall prescribing it for people with autonomic disorders (Shy-Drager Syndrome) and orthostatic hypotension from tricyclic antidepressants before the era of SSRI-type antidepressants.  Recently 45% of all FDA approved small molecule drugs (2018-2019) were fluorinated (3).  On the illicit side, in South Korea the percentage of seized synthetic cannabinoids that were fluorinated went from 0% in 2010 to 90% in 2013 (6).  Agricultural chemicals have had a similar increase in fluorinated compounds.  The medications at the top of this post are from my collection of standard psychiatric medications.  That list currently contains 144 medications across all therapeutic classes. After looking at all of the chemical structures only the 15 at the top were fluorinated and most of them have been around for a long time.

The FDA’s current position on medications in general is that there are no demonstrated problems with medications in wastewater.  They encourage the use of safe disposal sites.  They provide details on medications that should not be added to wastewater (No Flush List) that is basically a default based on the Flush List. Consumers are instructed to mix the no flush medications with inert substances that would render them unusable and dispose of them in the trash.  That typically would mean a landfill and the possibility of groundwater contamination. The issue of pharmaceuticals in freshwater is loosely regulated at this time.  There is existing research that some of these compounds can be measured, persist, and in some cases can damage aquatic life.  There is also the case of what can happen if bioaccumulating pharmaceuticals are detected in tap water as well as illegal drugs.  The total number of compounds detected are at the highest levels in the United States and Europe (see graphic on page 2 of this OECD document).

The organic chemistry of fluorinated compounds is detailed in the Science review (1). The authors of that review do a good job of looking at the advantaged of fluorination – specifically how it affects the physical properties of fluorinated molecules and their activity in biological systems. There is probably a lot more detail in that review than most people unfamiliar with organic chemistry need to know. The basic concept is that fluorination can alter the physicochemical properties of a molecule based on its electronegativity and that can later metabolism and how a drug interacts with the site of action.  As an example, fluorinated compounds tend to be more lipophilic or fat soluble than their non-fluorinated counterparts.  The authors of the Science article also take a look at how common fluorinated compounds like atorvastatin bind to an active site in 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase to inhibit cholesterol biosynthesis.

A more recent review (3) suggests that fluoride is used to block the metabolism of molecules and that the number of fluorinated compounds continues to increase.   They also describe more widespread use of fluorine in pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that incorporate anywhere from 2.5 to 4 halogen atoms per molecule.  These authors also describe fluorine toxicity and make the following relevant points.  First, that fluorine can accumulate in bone and teeth and if it occurs in excess can cause fluorosis.  A case report in the New England Journal of Medicine (4) describes a woman who developed fluorosis from excessive tea consumption (100-150 tea bags per day or an estimated >20 mg/day of fluoride). Radiographs showed spinal changes consistent with fluorosis (forearm and spine). She also had brittle teeth to the point they were all extracted. Fluorine toxicity can also occur at the level of metabolism specifically the Krebs cycle when fluorinated small molecules like fluoracetic acid can block metabolism.  Fluorine toxicity at this level is potentially lethal.  The LD 50 of fluoracetic acid is listed as 10 mg/kg and the toxic intake of fluoride is estimated to be > 10 mg/day.

An important consideration by these authors is that some fluorinated compounds can be metabolized freeing up fluoride in toxic levels.  They describe reactions including oxidation, nucleophilic substitution, and glutathione displacement (5) as reactions that can result in liberating fluorine from some of these compounds. Their example of toxicity is voriconazole – a tri-fluorinated antifungal compound that can undergo metabolism over time and lead to excess fluorine levels.  400 mg doses were estimated to liberate 17.5 mg/day of fluoride.  That leads the authors to conclude that fluoride metabolism of many of the new compounds needs investigation to reduce the risk of toxicity.  Pan has also stressed the importance of follow-up studies of these compounds to investigate how they are metabolized.

As an addiction psychiatrist, there is an additional group of fluorinated compounds that are less likely to be investigated and they are street drugs in this case fluorinated JWH compounds or synthetic cannabinoids (see Figure 1 below for the location of fluorination).  Bannister, et al noted that a design trend in these synthetic cannabinoids was to incorporate a terminal fluorine into these compounds.  Potency at the CB1 receptor was enhanced by this process. The authors describe concern over fluorine toxicity since it can be mobilized in these molecules by thermolytic defluorination by smoking as well as metabolic oxidative defluorination. 

At present time, the fate of fluorine in human metabolism and the ecosystem seems to be in a state of flux.  The trend in producing fluorinated human medications, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic cannabis compounds seems to be increasing at an unprecedented rate.  Understanding the toxicology of these compounds does not seem to have kept pace and that may be because many of them have been around for a long time and have not caused any significant problems. There was also a lot of theoretical reasons to think that the carbon-fluoride bond was very stable and difficult to break.  Now that we have plausible chemical paths for the metabolism of these compounds – physicians probably need to be more aware of fluorosis as a side effect and hopefully there will be more studies focused on metabolites and their possible toxicities.  Fluorination of street drugs is a real wild card because of the different paths of administration and potential impurities in these compounds some of which may contain fluorine precursors.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Müller K, Faeh C, Diederich F. Fluorine in pharmaceuticals: looking beyond intuition. Science. 2007 Sep 28;317(5846):1881-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1131943. PMID: 17901324.

2:  Benotti MJ, Trenholm RA, Vanderford BJ, Holady JC, Stanford BD, Snyder SA. Pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting compounds in U.S. drinking water. Environ Sci Technol. 2009 Feb 1;43(3):597-603. doi: 10.1021/es801845a. PMID: 19244989.

3:  Kyzer JL, Martens M. Metabolism and Toxicity of Fluorine Compounds. Chem Res Toxicol. 2021 Jan 29. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.0c00439. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33513303.

4:  Kakumanu N, Rao SD. Images in clinical medicine. Skeletal fluorosis due to excessive tea drinking. N Engl J Med. 2013 Mar 21;368(12):1140. doi: 10.1056/NEJMicm1200995. PMID: 23514291.

5:  Pan Y. The Dark Side of Fluorine. ACS Med Chem Lett. 2019 Jun 20;10(7):1016-1019. doi: 10.1021/acsmedchemlett.9b00235. PMID: 31312400; PMCID: PMC6627733.

6:  Banister SD, Stuart J, Kevin RC, Edington A, Longworth M, Wilkinson SM, Beinat C, Buchanan AS, Hibbs DE, Glass M, Connor M, McGregor IS, Kassiou M. Effects of bioisosteric fluorine in synthetic cannabinoid designer drugs JWH-018, AM-2201, UR-144, XLR-11, PB-22, 5F-PB-22, APICA, and STS-135. ACS Chem Neurosci. 2015 Aug 19;6(8):1445-58. doi: 10.1021/acschemneuro.5b00107. Epub 2015 May 8. PMID: 25921407.



Table 1 is reprinted with permission from Banister SD, Stuart J, Kevin RC, Edington A, Longworth M, Wilkinson SM, Beinat C, Buchanan AS, Hibbs DE, Glass M, Connor M, McGregor IS, Kassiou M. Effects of bioisosteric fluorine in synthetic cannabinoid designer drugs JWH-018, AM-2201, UR-144, XLR-11, PB-22, 5F-PB-22, APICA, and STS-135. ACS Chem Neurosci. 2015 Aug 19;6(8):1445-58. doi: 10.1021/acschemneuro.5b00107. Epub 2015 May 8. PMID: 25921407. Copyright 2015 American Chemical Society."

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Retirement By Default or Transitional Year?


As noted in a previous post, I stopped working on January 19, 2021. That is one month and two days ago. Since then I have been exercising on a daily basis, reading, outlining papers, and preparing posts for this blog. I have also been actively looking for positions in adult psychiatry or addiction psychiatry. The positions that have come up have all been fairly standard managed-care positions. In other words I would be using the standard electronic health record in Minnesota and I would have productivity expectations based on relative value units or RVUs.  Casual readers of this blog know that I have worked under those systems and would not do it again.

The second option is private practice. I greatly appreciate recommendations from a number of colleagues including some that were highly specific. There is no doubt at all that if I was just completing my residency and know what I know today about the practice environment that I would go into private practice. That option at this point is more complicated. I realize that a clinic infrastructure and all that entails is not really necessary now that everyone is doing telemedicine and telepsychiatry. On the other hand, I am very aware of the necessary medical basis of psychiatry and know that the farther you practice away from medical settings - the less likely you are to be able to attend to medical problems and medical monitoring. I also base this opinion on seeing three presentations by a physician I would consider to be the top telepsychiatry practitioner in this state if not the country. In all those presentations he emphasized the need for clinical monitoring on the receiving end. That would typically include vital signs, lab testing, arranging the necessary medical testing and referrals to medical practitioners. He also made it a policy to drive out to meet all of the individual patients at least once a year in the 5 county area that he covered. That would preclude me from setting up a telepsychiatry practice focused on seeing people in their homes.

I have a lot of concern about the boundary issue that occurs with telepsychiatry outside of clinical settings. I would have no difficulty assuring confidentiality on my end from my home office. I would be very concerned about confidentiality on the other end if I was seeing someone in their home. There is also the question of medical records and how they would be handled whether my private practice was established for two years or another 10 or 15 years.

After this month off, and the above considerations the practical question is whether or not I am on the glide path to retirement. A significant part of my time has been used to complete all the necessary Social Security and Medicare paperwork. A lot of that paperwork has been redundant and poorly thought out. I have been planning for retirement for at least 30 years and strongly considered it 10 years ago, but nothing prepared me for the rules, forms, and surveys from federal agencies. As just one example, I was not aware of the fact that Medicare Part B (and in some cases by default Part D) premiums were indexed against earned income from the previous year. A related problem is that no two people give you the same answers to questions about Medicare or Social Security. After two months, I think the paperwork is all finally complete.

I anticipate that retirement will be a relatively easy process for me. My life is structured around exercise, academics, and art. I have more than enough to keep me interested. During a recent conversation with a retired biochemist who is a good friend of mine - he pointed out that those are the things that keep him going.  I agree with that philosophy. That does not mean that I will be conflict free. When you have been talking with people for decades for most of the day in a very specific way and you are good at it -  there will always be the nagging question about how many more people you could have helped. That is also the time during my day when I am the calmest and most focused. Sitting alone in my library is certainly relaxing but there are times when it has the opposite effect on my focus. I have too many things to focus on and very few of them are as important as talking to a patient. 

The social aspect of work will be another more subtle loss. I am fortunate enough to have worked with excellent colleagues that I actively dialogue with and expect that to continue. But there are colleagues from other disciplines where that kind of work-related dialogue will just disappear. A lot of people seem to focus on whether or not they will maintain their relevance when retired. My work has always led me to the conclusion that the only people I was relevant to in the workplace were the patients I was treating. I don’t consider myself to be an opinion leader in the field. I am regularly consulted and expect that will fade away over time if I am not actively practicing.  Ageism is prevalent and younger generations will generally consider older practitioners to be less relevant - even if they may know a lot less than the older person.

The most significant aspect of psychiatry that I will miss is research. I was very fortunate to be involved in a research project with the Mayo Clinic over the past three years. That research team, their conceptual depth, intelligence, technical expertise and productivity was absolutely stunning compared with research efforts I have been affiliated with in the past. That is a significant loss both in terms of the knowledge I was acquiring but also because I expect this research team to have the best shot at determining relevant biomarkers for psychiatric  disorders and associated personalized medicine approaches for these disorders. My personal past research included both plant tissue culture (somatic embryogenesis of Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), and clinical drug trials of antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics, and pharmacotherapy of Alzheimer’s disease as well as neuroendocrinology studies of depression. I also studied quantitative EEG of psychiatric disorders and more specifically the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on quantitative EEG.  I am still interested in research work and that includes bench type research if those positions are available. I am also available for literature research, editing, and writing papers. My friend the biochemist has continued to do that in retirement and I plan to try it with or without collaborators.

That is my current status - not retired and actively looking for work. But the work can’t be just any job and after carefully considering - it won’t be private practice. My current job requirements are fairly high relative to other employed psychiatrists but not in the salary sense. I have very specific practice environment requirements in mind and the tradeoff is that I know as much neuropsychiatry and medical psychiatry as anyone and practiced it in high acuity environments. I am hopeful that the right job will materialize, and at this point will give it up to one more year.

Either way I will still be plugging away at this blog.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplemental 1:

I thought I would add this thought after the fact.  My guess is that there are a significant number of psychiatrists in my current transitional phase.  The pandemic has highlighted a couple of issues that apply.  The first is the widespread use of telemedicine and telepsychiatry - specifically its successful implementation. The second is the levels of distress experienced by front line caregivers from various professions.  Apart from the usual avenues of assistance there have been informal programs set up to assist these workers and refer them to appropriate resources. I can think of no better use of my abilities than to assist in this area, but exactly how to assist is the problem.  All of the documentation, hardware, software, medical resource availability, and malpractice issues that I described in the main post still apply.  No single person has enough resources to provide this service unless they set up a private practice.

With the advent of telemedicine, it is possible to have a centralized administration that can provide all of the necessary services and coordination to get psychiatric services out to the people who need them.  I think it would be relatively easy to find psychiatrists to staff that service.  A uniform administrative structure could be used similar to other government-civilian service organizations like the Peace Corps.  At the humanistic level it would serve the dual purpose of providing services and matching that with a resource in search of a home and that is skilled psychiatrists. 

Supplemental 2:

I was reminded today of the success that I have had treating patients with conversion disorders, fibromyalgia, and seronegative (also known as "chronic") Lyme disease.  That reminder was a reference to how to approach people with chronic post  COVID-19 symptoms. I would be very interested in clinical trials or direct clinical service is any setting that specialized in seeing this patient population. Brain fog has become a term of interest as well as a pejorative term with the politcalization of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.  I have discussed that symptom with hundreds of patients and again would welcome a clinical setting or research setting where I could do more.  To me this has been a significant problem in primary care clinics that has been unaddressed by most of psychiatry and neurology.  

Graphics credit:  Aircraft on final approach image was downloaded from Shutterstock per their standard user agreement.  It symbolizes a glide path the retirement.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Does the Insurrection End the Debate on the Goldwater Rule?


I think it does and both sides lose.

As a refresher take a look at my earlier comments on the Goldwater Rule at this link.  More briefly, the Goldwater Rule was implemented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as ethical guidance to its members following an incident where a 1964 magazine survey of psychiatrists concluded that the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was “psychologically unfit” to be President of the United States.  As you can see from the ad in this previous post, there was a strong implication by the Lyndon Johnson campaign that a Goldwater presidency would put the country on a path to nuclear war.  Goldwater subsequently sued the magazine and was awarded damages – three years after he lost the election.

In the meantime, the APA included the following section in the Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry.

Section 7.3

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Since I wrote the original post, I have queried many colleagues who are also APA members and as far as I know no member has ever been sanctioned by the APA or any of its district branches for violating the Goldwater Rule.  There has been a lot of intense debate about it and that debate has never been as intense as during the recent Trump administration.  Beyond the debate there are unequivocal examples of psychiatrists ignoring the Goldwater Rule and, in some cases, criticizing the APA about it. The rhetoric extends to the point that the APA invented the rule because it was embarrassed about the original Goldwater incident and it was suppressing the free speech rights of its members who felt an ethical duty to use their skills to either warn or protect the United States from President Trump.  While some have found that rhetoric to be admirable, I do not. First, APA membership is completely voluntary and the obvious way to escape its long reach into First Amendment rights is to not be a member.  The predictable response to that suggestion is that all of the benefits of membership will be not be available and that might put non-members at a disadvantage.  Having been an APA member for over 30 years, I can attest to the fact that there are minimal advantages to being a member primarily as discounts to publications by the organization.  Even then, the American Medical Association (AMA) membership fee is much lower and includes free access to many more publications.

A second consideration is the context of what is happening.  In my previous post, I pointed out that psychiatrists are trained to assess problems in a particular context.  During years of training that comes down to a face-to-face discussion with the patient about problems that were either identified by the patient or someone else.  Collateral information is considered and that can be exhaustive. A diagnosis and problem formulation follows. Until the profiling of political leaders, criminals, and historical figures came into the scene in the past few decades there was no suggestion that psychiatrists could assess people at distance with any degree of accuracy. In fact, criminal profiling is generally done these days by trained law enforcement personnel suggesting that no psychiatric qualifications are necessary at all.  It all seems predicated on a folk psychology model that personality features and patterns of behavior are constant over time and dependent on past behavior. Some of the commentators on this issue have identified themselves as forensic psychiatrists. Forensic psychiatrists are paid to do even more exhaustive interviews and review of collateral information than clinical psychiatrists. They may take 15-20 hours to do an assessment compared with a clinical psychiatrist who probably has 60-90 minutes at the most. The idea that forensic psychiatrists endorse assessments at a distance seems even more incongruous to me.

Focusing only on the conclusory article (1) post insurrection it is clear why psychiatric opinion adds nothing to the political mix.  In the first paragraph, the authors conclude that Trump is “clearly mentally unbalanced and unable to grapple with a reality that threatens his inflated and fragile ego.”  They suggest that only reason that people would not believe their statement is that they ascribe his behavior to “puckish idiosyncrasy or creative disruption”.  That gives their statement way too much explanatory power. How about the obvious political considerations and Trump’s previous behavior as a businessman?  He is clearly a guy who is used to steamrolling over people and often uses the legal system to do it.  He demonstrated that in the primary and the debates.  He demonstrates it on a weekly basis toward anyone who he thinks is being disloyal – irrespective of their track record. He threw his Vice President under the bus for adhering to the Constitution that he was sworn to uphold. Who would describe that behavior as puckish?  Any objective observer would see that President Trump is a negative force and somebody that you do not want to deal with and hopefully would never be employed by. In political terms, he is an autocrat that deals in propaganda and he knows the power of propaganda. By definition, that is dangerous to any democratic republic but once again – it has nothing to do with psychiatry or the special training of psychiatrists.

The preamble in that conclusion: “clearly mentally unbalanced” is also rhetorical.  He has tens of millions of followers who all believe the propaganda. The authors themselves acknowledge that if Trump was a private citizen they would not be concerned and that their concern is only based on the fact that he was the President. This would be the first case of mental illness based on the condition of Presidency. The additional evidence in this article that Trump was “delusional”, “impulsive”, vengeance seeking, or “deranged” is non-existent and it can easily be argued that deficiency occurs as a direct result of not having personally examined him to ask him for direct explanations.   All of the examples cited are consistent with the behavior of a highly self-interested politician or businessman who will do anything to win. In the event that the authors have not noticed there are tens of thousands of these people walking around in American society. Possibly hundreds of thousands and none of them are being treated by psychiatrists.

The authors previous argument that they have an ethical responsibility to warn the public about Trump’s dangerousness based on a presumptive personality disorder falls apart under that scrutiny.  If there is no clear evidence of a diagnosis there seems to be no basis for the authors to base their actions on. Further Trump’s recent statement on the day of the insurrection and even since are no more radical than many of his colleagues or followers. Why are psychiatrists needed when there is nothing to base a professional opinion upon?

Early in the course of the Trump presidency, the issues arising with the Goldwater Rule were analyzed by Kroll and Pouncey (2).  After considering all of the variations their conclusion was that the Goldwater Rule was based on the need of the APA to prevent embarrassment to the profession by making statements similar to the statements made by psychiatrists during the original Goldwater controversy. That assumes that the APA as a guild is successful in preserving and promoting the interests of psychiatrists in the USA.  The track record there is very sketchy.  The APA and medicine in general has been completely unsuccessful in preserving a practice environment conducive to quality care.  At many levels it has facilitated that transition most notably by a near complete lack of opposition to managed care tactics and legislation and more recently collaborative care initiatives.  The APA has not been successful in advocating for patients with the most severe forms of mental illness. There has also not been any success in advocating for reasonable infrastructure to help the severely mentally ill avoid homelessness and incarceration. That string of failures is potentially more embarrassing than whether or not a few psychiatrists look foolish on the evening news.  I think there is an ethical basis for the Goldwater Rule that extends far beyond embarrassing the many by the few.

One of the key dimensions that I have not seen anyone comment one is that most psychiatrists are liberal Democrats. Psychiatry is the only medical specialty where that is true.  That is a clear bias when assessing a President from the opposite political party.

The insurrection itself clearly illustrates that psychiatric intervention in a Constitutional crisis is not possible or advisable.  I am basing that on the fact that for 25 years I participated in thousands of civil commitments, guardianships, and conservatorships.  I know all the legal requirements for these proceedings in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.  There is no court in any county in either state that would accept a legal proceeding against the President based on his current public behavior.  A typical argument against my position would say it is a utilitarian argument and therefore limited on those philosophical grounds. I don’t think it is at all.  If you are arguing that psychiatrists need to be involved, the question needs to be asked: “What for?”  The psychiatrists who have been the most vocal that President Trump is dangerous or irrational and, in some cases, claim that they are being stifled by the APA and the Goldwater Rule need to have an endpoint.  Every day psychiatric practice dictates that if you are seeing a dangerous individual you have to enact a plan to protect the patient and others. I don’t think that level of evidence exists – it certainly does not rise to the level of court intervention. The next step would be approaching members of Congress and asking for Impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment. They don’t need psychiatrists for that.  So what mysterious psychiatric intervention do the Goldwater Rule deniers want to see happen?  Should psychiatrists sitting in arm chairs call someone in the White House and tell them to remove the President based on his most recent outrageous statements?  That clearly would not work.  The concern that he has access to the nuclear briefcase also does not work. The evidence at this point is very clear, his cabinet had the opportunity to enact the 25th Amendment and they declined.  Vice President Pence declined even after he was publicly berated by the President. Limits were set by the Department of Justice, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, social media companies, the National Guard and law enforcement on the ground.  President Trump had an unorthodox exit from the White House but he did leave.  Several days later the public was informed that he left a letter for President Biden.

The Republic survived without psychiatric intervention and none was indicated. The Goldwater Rule did not prevent some psychiatrists from making rhetorical statements from both the right and the left.  Nobody was sanctioned because from a practical standpoint it is ethical guidance – and I think it is good ethical guidance.

Is there a role for psychiatrists in these situations apart from making a speculative guess about the mental status of the Commander-in-Chief?  I think there is and that is in an advisory capacity about some of the group dynamics and containment of violence that occurred. It is absolutely critical to notice when propaganda is being used to incite violence or in this case an insurrection. Propaganda is not a “shared delusion” it is emotionally charged speech that can lead to fixed irrational positions.  It has to be recognized and countered in order to prevent the mass level of dysfunction associated with the denial of systemic racism, pandemic denial, mask denial, climate change denial, and the denial that the Presidential election was free and fair.  All of those levels of denial associated with the Trump administration occur in the context of longstanding denial that there is a serious problem with firearms in this country.  If psychiatrists want to be politically involved – those are the hard problems that need to be addressed.

There is much to be said for psychiatrists’ experience with containing violence and aggression.  When I witnessed what happened on January 6, I had many concerns about Inauguration Day.  My primary concerns were whether there would be adequate force to stop a similar attack and minimize the risk of injury to the police or demonstrators.  As I saw the barriers erected my concern was whether they was a plan in place to keep large groups away from the fences and avoid a violent confrontation.  Was there intelligence about the possibility of foreign actors taking advantage of the situation? And most of all – did the police and National Guard have clear rules of engagement to contain escalating violence and aggression and avoid serious injuries.  It turns out that everything except the rules of engagement were handled well. 

My advice about the Goldwater Rule either way is straightforward.  Forget about debating the President’s mental status in public.  The standard for Presidential capacity is a lay standard and not specified by any statute.  Psychiatric opinion is and will be remain unnecessary.  And if an APA member decides they want to bring an ethics complaint based on a violation of the Goldwater Rule – that is a waste of time as well. Stay focused on your own medical professionalism and remember that being a psychiatrist does not necessarily make you immune to emotional reasoning, political rhetoric, or propaganda. There are probably many more friends, neighbors, and relatives that need to get back on track to carry on the more mundane work of democracy.  


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Leonard L. Glass,  Edwin B. Fisher, Bandy X. Lee.  Trump’s Danger is now Undeniable.  He is clearly mentally unbalanced and unable to grapple with a reality that threatens his inflated and fragile ego.  Boston Globe January 7, 2021.

2:  Kroll J, Pouncey C. The Ethics of APA's Goldwater Rule. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2016 Jun;44(2):226-35. PMID: 27236179.

Graphics Credit:

1:  Donald J Trump official portrait By Shealah Craighead - White House, Public Domain,  Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons on 1/29/2021

2:  Barry Goldwater 1960 portrait By United States Senate -  Public Domain,

Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons on 1/29/2021


Disclosure 1:

Jerome Kroll, MD was one of my professors when I was a resident at the University of Minnesota.  He is a brilliant psychiatrist and wrote one of the best books ever The Challenge of the Borderline Patient.  He was also one of many professors who taught me that you can argue with colleagues and nobody has to take it personally - a good lesson in politics as well. 

Disclosure 2:

In my previous post I pointed out that for the past several decades I have been a small "i" independent.  That has changed with recent events.  I would find it very difficult to vote for a Republican based on their collective behavior and inability to respond to President Trump for the good of the American people.  But I still  do not think that psychiatrists have anything to offer in that area.


I decided to attach the next several paragraphs based on what I have encountered over the Goldwater Rule into arguments I have heard from deniers and supporters of the rule. The last section are my personal observations (from above) - admittedly not independent of the others

Goldwater Rule Deniers:

1: Psychiatric or mental health experience is necessary in the case where a President may be incapacitated and unable to perform their duties.

2: Psychiatrists are ethically bound to publicly speak out if the President is incapacitated and a potential danger to the country.

3: The only reason the Goldwater Rule exists is to prevent embarrassment of the psychiatric profession.

4:  There may be an element of financial conflict of interest if the Goldwater Rule was recently modified over concerns that the APA may receive less money/tax benefit because of criticism of the President.

4: The APA suppresses the free speech rights of psychiatrists who speak out on the basis of their public assessment of the President.

5.  At least some deniers of the Rule believe that there should be a lower standard for capacity or mental illness if it is applied to the President. In other words, psychiatric opinion is conditional on whether or not the person being observed is the elected President at the time.

6.  The personal interview is not reliable and all of the information necessary to make a diagnosis is already out there in the public domain.

7.  The President's personality or alleged mental illness is the primary problem in what appear to be poorly thought out decisions.


Goldwater Rule Supporters:

1:  The Rule is the rule and direct examination of the patient is required to get the assessment out of a purely speculative mode where observations potentially have multiple possible meanings.

2:  The politicization of psychiatry is inevitable with experts for either party.

3:  The politicization of psychiatry potentially impacts patients’ willingness to see psychiatrists for help.

4:  Competency versus capacity – competency requires legal definition, capacity may be informal but that is unlikely in a contested procedure.

5:  Scientific accuracy of predictions of dangerous behavior are not good (Estelle v. Barefoot and APA amicus brief)

6:  Psychiatrists are not immune to rhetoric, propaganda or emotionally charged speech. The original treatment of Goldwater is a good example.

7:  If the issue is dangerousness and we are talking about President Trump there were many more dangerous presidents based on total war casualties that occurred during their terms – including Lyndon Johnson who was elected in part on the alleged dangerousness of his opponent Barry Goldwater.

8:  The President's personality or alleged mental illness is difficult to separate from purely political tactics like intentional misinformation or propaganda that are designed to disrupt and manipulate the electorate. 



1:  The Rule is ethical guidance that has never been enforced.

2:   The Rule is obviously ignored – nobody has ever been sanctioned by the APA or a District Branch in the 50 years it has been in effect

3:   The Rule only applies to APA members so people outside of the APA should not be concerned about it.  If you are really concerned about it don’t be an APA member and comment as much as you like.

4:   Presidential capacity is a lay standard that is not specified in any legal statute. In other words, there are no judicial descriptions of a standard for Presidential incapacity, no standard of proof.

5:  There is no mechanism to remove the President from office based on psychiatric opinion.  There are however political and legal mechanisms (25th Amendment, Impeachment) to remove the President based on the opinion of his cabinet and in the case of repeated impeachments disqualify from further election eligibility.  A non-psychiatric standard is defined in the 25th Amendment.

6:  In retrospect, some of the original campaign against Goldwater was propaganda (see ad on nuclear war) and that was reflected in some of the psychiatric opinion at the time.

7:  Psychiatrists potentially have a more significant role at the level of the group dynamics of violence, aggression, misinformation, propaganda, and the containment of violence and aggression.

8:  Several polls have characterized psychiatry as the most liberal medical specialty and the only one where a majority of members are Democrats.  That conflict of interest should be disclosed when commenting on opposition party politicians.


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Are There Any Good Jobs Left for Psychiatrists?

I quit my job last Thursday night at about 9:30 PM.  My term of employment was officially over at the close of business today – Tuesday January 19, 2021.  It happened during an exchange of fairly terse emails with my immediate supervisors. Those emails occurred in the context of a flurry of daytime emails that were critical and could easily be interpreted as making me look as bad as possible.  I have no plans to disclose the nature of these conflicts or the content of those emails.  

I know from experience that responding to the content of these messages at face value and ignoring the meaning is a mistake that you can never recover from. It is also a mistake because it assumes that the people representing corporations have a genuine interest in you as a human being.  People – no matter how good they are – are always expendable to the modern corporation and there is no better example than healthcare companies. I also believe that because several of my previous supervisors said it directly to my face.

I was very clear in my email that the reason I was quitting was a decision that happened that day.  It is good to maintain clear boundaries when it comes to these decisions.  Sometimes there is a lot of emotion involved and when that happens a lot of charged rhetoric.  By the time 9:30 PM rolled around – I was very cool.  I had been in a heightened emotional state all day.  That tends to happen when people say things about me that are not true and try to make it seem like I am personality disordered.  By heightened emotional state I generally mean a hyperadrenergic state. Anxiety, stress, tachycardia rather than anger.  That distressed state resolved as soon as I realized the situation with the administrators was hopeless and all I had to do was quit.  As soon as that occurred, I was able to relax and fall asleep like nothing had happened.  A complete cessation of the emails was also helpful.

That decision in the last paragraph was very important to me.  As the son of a railroad engineer, I was socialized to be very wary of any special interest (whether it was a company or a union) that could affect your work or personal freedom. Being very clear on what you want to experience was all part of that socialization and at times it was fairly stark. There is a long learning curve.  I did not really become an expert at it until I walked away from a previous job 12 years ago. I thought I was going to work at that job my entire career and retire – much like my Dad viewed his railroad job.

I recall my father showing me the front of his Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers trade paper and angrily making the following statement: 

“Do you see this big house?  That is where the President of the Union Lives!  Do you think he cares about what happens to us?”  (Fairly certain my Dad would have probably used much more colorful language  but I don’t want to embellish).

Of course not, Dad.  I heard a radio program several years ago about first-generation white-collar workers from blue collar families.  According to the speaker, they were much less likely to integrate their business lives into their social lives.  The example given was that they would not invite their boss over for dinner.  But nobody stated the reason – and that is basic working-class distrust of management.  Second-generation white-collar workers may also have a much higher tolerance for bullshit than blue collar folks. In my family of origin, bullshit was not a humorous or value free word.  It was generally a pejorative.  

There is also the way you exist in the work place.  Some people need the social aspect at work for many reasons including reassurance that they are in good standing.  A lot of us like to keep our heads down, do the work, and not comment on all of the social behavior in the workplace.  We don’t want to hear about other peoples’ problems – not because we don’t care about our fellow man but because we were raised to mind your own business.  I am in the latter category and find that it works very well.  People I work with over time know they will be treated fairly and they know that I am very loyal to them.  That may be another reason why I react so strongly when people make things up about me.

The boundaries are significantly less clear in a white collar setting, especially with institutional rules and training on what constitutes civility. Unless you are fired precipitously and escorted out by security there are the superficial niceties – even if you are dying the death of a thousand cuts.  “Oh you’re leaving? We are sorry to see you go! Let’s have some cake in the break room! Don’t be a stranger!”  All the while stories are being spun about what happened to either make it seem like you were basically a jerk or you were never there in the first place. At a previous job I endured months of gaslighting and abuse.  At one point I asked my primary care doc for a prescription for a beta blocker just to control my heart rate and blood pressure from the stress. I joke about taking them like M&Ms, but at the time it was no joke.  That was not going to happen again.

When I think about the range of normal and pathological workplace dynamics I always come back to the work of the late Peter Drucker.  He was described as the world’s greatest management thinker.  One of his key concepts is the knowledge worker.  In other words, employees who were trained in a profession – in many cases an independent professional. Drucker pointed out that these employees need to be managed differently by virtue of the fact that they know more about the business than their boss does.  Further that they are not managed for widget production as productivity.  In the current healthcare environment, the most highly trained employees are physicians. They are treated like production workers and clerical workers rather than knowledge workers and in many cases replaced en masse by other workers who can do some of what they do.  As an example, I recently did a search through my health care system looking for a primary care internist in the event that my current internist retires.  The search pulled up 50 practitioners and only 2 were physicians.  The way health care systems deal with knowledge workers is to either get rid of them or ration them.  All part of the unending death spiral of low-quality care in America.

One of the big human-interest stories of the pandemic is that medical school applications are apparently way up.  The reason given is the presence of Anthony Fauci, MD in the news.  In all of these clips, only a tiny fraction of Dr. Fauci’s expertise and body of work is visible but his demeanor and consistent references to science make him easy to identify with. He is a physician that others want to emulate.  The problem for all of these prospective medical students is that there are very few places any more where a physician can practice at the top of what they were trained to do.  There are practically no physician environments that maintain an academic focus that was common in every setting that I trained at in the 1980s.

Apart from the workplace politics and all of the completely unnecessary stress it produces my immediate consideration is finding a new job.  I do not need to work. I could simply retire.  When I was working a burnout inpatient job – I fantasized about retiring early just to escape the place.  Since then, I have concluded that I am still at the top of my game and have an excellent skillset to offer people with significant psychiatric problems.  These services are clearly needed. In addition, I have a unique approach to psychiatry that I think needs to be out there to counter the low-quality checklist approach that has very little to do with psychiatry.  The problem is finding the ideal environment to utilize that skill set.  The figure below gives an example of the practice environments that I have worked in and whether my skill set was utilized or marginalized.


Drawing on that experience whether I get another job at this point or retire depends on the following factors:

1:  Malpractice coverage: I could easily set up a private practice in the era of telepsychiatry but any psychiatrist planning to retire at some point needs tail coverage.  That is malpractice insurance through the statute of limitations for malpractice in the state you practice in.  In Minnesota that is three years and would costs tens of thousands of dollars.  That’s right - three years paying out a good deal of money on the hypothetical that you might be sued during that time – whether you have previously been sued or not.

2:  Practice environment:  The graphic below shows how badly the practice environment has deteriorated with the invention of managed care, pharmacy benefit managers, and an expensive labor-intensive electronic health record (EHR).  That means I have a choice again between setting up my own office, hiring staff, buying and setting up and EHR or going to work for a managed care company who has all of this but expects me to become a template monkey and fill out 20-30 patient visit templates per day.  I use the term template monkey out of respect for one of my colleagues who is a proceduralist and told me at lunch one day that is what she had become.  She presented it as a joke, but it is a fairly depressing self-observation from one of the most highly trained MDs in the profession and the hours it takes her to complete arbitrary forms that have nothing to do with quality medical care.

While I am at it my inpatient and outpatient workflow is 30 minutes per patient follow up and 60-90 minutes for initial evaluations with some time in between for documentation and coordination of care.  That coordination of care typically involves acquiring and reviewing records and speaking to the patient’s treating physicians.  I also need to be able to dictate all of the notes rather than type them in to a template. I have yet to see dictation software work seamlessly enough, but I have seen transcription companies with industrialized versions do excellent job for a very low price. I need help from clerical resources, I don’t need to become a clerical worker.  

3:  Availability of necessary equipment, tests, and specialists:  For 22 years I worked in a very collegial environment that was full of medical and surgical consultants. I knew all of them and they knew me.  There was mutual respect and plenty of information exchange.  We consulted informally at lunch.  If I had a patient with complex problems – I would just do the evaluation, order all of the tests, make a diagnosis and then call a consultant if necessary.  I have not been in that environment for a while and I am not used to leaving things hanging and depending that people will follow my advice and see a cardiologist.  In fact, I know that people rarely follow through.  Anyone who suggests that you can just kick the can down the road, doesn’t really understand the practice of medicine or psychiatry.  In order to offer treatment, I need to determine that the patient does not have serious underlying illness and that I am not making any pre-existing conditions worse.   So, I need a medically intensive environment.  I thought I could do without it but that was a big mistake.

Apart from my current situation, this is a problem across the entire country.  Medically trained psychiatrists and neuropsychiatrists are unable to find suitable practice environments.  Managed care companies are quick to offer appointments with any prescriber for anxiety and depression or even more complicated problems. This is a system wide problem even though there is no organized system of mental health care in the country.  If I get lucky and find the resources I need – the system will be lucky – at least in the geographic area where I can serve patients.  It is a basic fact that the necessary practice environment for most medically intensive psychiatrists has become a fantasy in the United States.  That fantasy could easily be remedied by a national work force supplying psychiatrists with what they need and paying them as employees.

If I am not fortunate enough to find the right practice environment – I will be enjoying retirement and to me a lot of that will still be studying psychiatry, medicine, and science.  It is what I do and I enjoy doing it.

Old patterns of behavior die hard – at least for me.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary 1:

My official last day was the close of business on Tuesday January 19 and that is why this is being posted later that same day.

 Supplementary 2:

I do wish my fellow former employees the very best (including the administrators) and hope that everything goes well for them.  After I announced my resignation, I received at least 50 very positive emails telling me that they liked working with me and wishing me well in the future.  In many cases they were extremely complimentary. We all worked together to help people solve very difficult problems in a highly constrained environment. We were typically successful to some degree. For all of the compliments all that I can say is thank you and:

“The light that shines on me – shines on you”.




Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Insurrection

This has been an historic week in the United States. On January 6, 2021, President Donald Trump and several of his supporters incited a large group to attack and invade the Capitol Building as Congress was in the process of certifying the electoral college vote – the last official but routine step for Joe Biden to become the duly elected President of the United States.  During the riot, Capitol police were assaulted and one of them was killed. A rioter was shot and killed.  Three people died of medical emergencies due to poor access at the scene. There were scores of people injured, many serious.

Police and the National Guard eventually regained control and Congress was able to reconvene and certify the electoral college vote.  The challenges to the votes in several states were overwhelmingly rejected.  The President had also suggested that the Vice President Mike Pence could decide to not accept the votes and nullify the election, but the Vice President was very explicit about his Constitutional duties and knew that was outside of his scope of power. He kept the process going and brought it to appropriate closure declaring that Biden-Harris were the winners.

The aftermath of this event has produced a little certainty but not much.  As I write this late on a Saturday night, all that we know for sure is that Joe Biden is the certified winner of the election and that he will be inaugurated on January 20th.  President Trump’s supporters from the recertification debacle are in disarray.  Press reports quote them as lashing out at the expected fall out from their efforts and the insurrection at the Capitol. At least one has lost a book deal and in other cases constituents are calling for their resignation.  Since the official vote was preceded by the insurrection and violence, some of the people who were expected to object to the certifications from specific states did not. Other Republicans were outspoken against the process from the outset since it was clear that the President had repeatedly lied about the election being stolen and there was no factual basis for any objections. Republicans adopting those positions were subjected to derision and threats from Republicans who supported Trump.

On the night of the insurrection, there were rumors that Trump’s cabinet may be considering invoking the 25th Amendment and removing the President from power based on his incapacity to do the job. Inciting an insurrection against the government and Constitution that he was sworn to uphold would seem like a sure way to get anyone fired.  The other logical question is, if a person can make such a drastic error in judgment – does it imply that they will continue to make further drastic errors?  In other words is their judgment compromised even beyond the crisis they have created?  I am not talking about a diagnosis of mental illness. I am an adherent of the Goldwater Rule and don’t believe that psychiatrists should speculate about the mental health of a public figure without doing a thorough personal assessment and then disclosing the result of that assessment only with the consent of that individual.

That does not mean that professional organizations should abdicate their roles in advocating for science, social justice and correcting disparities related issues, and most of all advocating for a practice environment that allows physicians to provide high quality health care to our patients who need it the most. Health care professional organizations have not done a very good job on these issues largely because they have been completely ineffective against the business takeover of health care. 

With the recent events the American Psychiatric Association cam out with a statement on January 7, 2021 entitled: APA Statement on Yesterday’s Violence in Washington.  It seemed to be overly reactive to me and it carried the usual generic conclusions – if you are having problems see someone. It would have more authority if there had been statements at every stage of the President’s escalating rhetoric.  Where was the APA for example when the President attacked science, the CDC and its scientists, and Dr. Fauci?  Where was the APA when the President attacked Black Lives Matter and showed support for white supremacists? Where was the APA when the President trivialized the COVID-19 epidemic, politicized the treatment and endangered lives, and spread misinformation about the origins of the virus and how it spreads. There is no authority when you sweep in at the very end when conditions are dire and seek to correct what you did not comment on in the previous 10 months. Real time commentary on political action that is detrimental to the social fabric of the country is necessary from professional organizations, especially one whose members assess the impact of that social fabric on every patient they see.

But there is more blame to go around – especially when it comes to social media companies.  Facebook, Twitter, and Google all seem to be very confused about how they are used for propaganda purposes. Misinformation is a euphemism for propaganda these days and there has never been a more powerful amplifier of propaganda than American social media. To be clear, propaganda is an intentional lie that is repeated over and over again until a certain segment believes it to be true and starts to react emotionally to it. This behavior was clearly visible from people at the Trump rally and people who invaded the Capitol building. People clearly agitated about the election being “stolen”, socialists taking over, the country turning to socialism, personal freedoms being impinged upon.  Image after image of people in the media who were obvious Trump supporters who were agitated about what are essentially non-issues. The clearest non-issue was the election being stolen.  Trump himself keeps repeating this despite the clear facts that the elections are much more well run that when Al Gore was defeated by hanging cardboard chads in the 2000 election that was decided by a Supreme Court decision and a 271 to 267 electoral college vote. In fact, the score card about election fraud shows that there is a complete lack of evidence of significant “fraud” or stolen elections.  The major social media players finally came around and banned Trump and his accounts, but even as I type this he is vowing to get more media access and continue his divisive propaganda campaign.

In the big picture, the Trump propaganda is much more than a curiosity at this point.  In addition to the insurrection at the Capitol, Trump followers have threatened violence against the families of both Democrat and Republican elected officials largely as a way to support Trump.  These coercive tactics have no place in a functional democracy and at the individual level should be considered terroristic threats by local police. The insurrection has provided a blueprint for both foreign and domestic enemies of the United States who seek to disrupt the functions of our government and the security of our citizens. The disruptive effect that the Trump administration has had on our military, intelligence community, allies and leadership role in the world adds greatly to the insecurity of the republic. President Trump and his administration should be considered a case study of incompetent leadership and suggest pathways to competency that future leaders should be assessed by.

I started to write this with some suggestions about what needs to happen over the next 10 days to get the country back on track and correct some of the current glaring deficits:

1:  President Trump: the people on the ground specifically his Cabinet and leaders in Congress need to make an assessment acutely about whether he lacks the current capacity to function in his role as President. The insurrection is strong evidence.  His lack of commentary of a major Russian government hack that has been occurring for months (the extent of which is not currently known) is another.  There is speculation that some of his cabinet members are contemplating this but there have been resignations and temporary appointments.  There is a question about how fragmented the Cabinet is and whether that would hinder the process.  Members of Congress are apparently considering impeachment, but that is a long process.  There are platitudes about how impeachment would not “heal the divisiveness” that are more than a little ironic considering the people making these statements. I have heard that two impeachments of any President rules out any future candidacy and if that is true – it is a very good reason for proceeding with impeachment.

There are still some mental health professionals out there who think a psychiatric emergency is a better response. I routinely did psychiatric emergencies for 22 years and I can say without a doubt that there is no court judge that I know of who would detain President Trump on an emergency basis for hearing or schedule a hearing for guardianship or conservatorship on the basis of a mental illness. Media reports are full armchair diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder or malignant narcissism (not an actual diagnosis) and even if these diagnoses were accurate – they are not diagnoses that result in court action.  Those diagnoses are typically statutorily defined severe mental illness.  The legal criteria in the 25th Amendment is much clearer: unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. The only problem is that it is interpreted by lawyers and politicians and not everyone will agree with that interpretation.

Another feature of the legal versus psychiatric intervention is that the decisions can be made right now, by people who have been working with the President in some cases for 4 years.  That constitutes a larger amount of information and a much shorter timeline for action than is possible in any psychiatric scenario. 

2:  The security issue:  The Capitol and any place there are elected officials doing the work of the US Government needs to be very secure. That means there needs to be an adequate force and clear rules of engagement.  Right now there are people threatening the inauguration process and there must be very thorough plans to prevent that from happening.  The FBI is apparently trying to identify as many people as possible from the original insurrection and the message is out there that they will be prosecuted.

The larger security issue is starting to counteract the propaganda about stolen elections, fake pandemics, fake news, and freedom being under attack. I am confident that clearer messaging from the White House and members of Congress will be useful as well as integration back into the international community.

3:  The potential for Civil War:  Not my idea.  About 3-4 months ago I was contacted by people who knew that I was a bit of a survivalist.  Their concerns ranged from civil unrest disrupting the food and power supply as well as access to medical treatment to outright armed conflict between warring factions  Their specific questions were about what they should acquire now to protect themselves and their family if the Trump induced negative reverberations through society continue and worsen.  I am not a historian and wonder if an attempted coup by an autocrat who refuses to accept or even acknowledge 200 years of democracy qualifies as a civil war?  The autocracies in my lifetime including Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot and many others extending right up to modern times do not seem to be the products of civil war.  Many occurred as the result of internal political turmoil often fomented by propaganda.  Many of these propaganda techniques were codified by the Nazis such as the Big Lie propaganda technique.  

The transition from ordered to disordered society is never clear. No American anticipated the rise of a disruptive autocrat and the impact that he could have on ordinary citizens.  In many ways it reminds me of Robert J. Lifton's interviews in The Nazi Doctors and how the transition to state sanctioned medical killing occurred during the Holocaust.  On page 13 he quotes a French speaking eastern European physician on whether what happened can be understood from a psychology viewpoint:

"The professor would like to understand what is not understandable. We ourselves who were there, and who have always asked ourselves the question and will ask it to the end of our lives , we will never understand it because it cannot be understood."    

I think there may be some insights from the anthropology of warfare.  Keeley gathered anthropological evidence of ancient conflicts between tribes, towns, and eventually cities.  He concluded that there were no peaceful primitive people. The settlement of disputes between neighboring tribes or city states have always been violent with a significant toll on the losing population.  That theme is obviously extended to current times where there is an uneasy peace based on nuclear deterrence but a quarter million people lose their lives each year due to small arms fire.  Peace does not seem to be the interest of many nations even though there are clear cut advantages.  The human propensity for violent dispute resolution is not reassuring in a heavily armed nation and an angry faction who show up on government property holding assault rifles.  Interestingly one of the features of society that Keeley considered protective against war was an active trading and economic relationship with rivals.  That is another area where President Trump has not done well. 

4:  The propaganda at the individual level:  Many people ask me why so many people buy into obvious propaganda like the stolen election lie.  It turns out this recipe for influencing large groups of people politically has been around for decades.  The general message is to keep repeating the lie and at some point people start to emotionally react to it and that reinforces it.  From a neuroscience perspective there have been some imaging studies that claim to be able to detect Democrats from Republicans but I question those results.  Some suggest the problem is a lack of critical thinking, but I know a lot of professionals who have accepted Trump’s stolen election lie as a fact and their critical reasoning capabilities in all other areas seem to be intact.  One of my colleagues proposed an evolutionary social theory that seems to have some plausibility – as humans we are socialized to follow charismatic leaders whether they are right or wrong.  There seems to be a lot of historical data to back that up.

I would suggest a complementary hypothesis and that is the emotional inputs for day-today decision making.  Some time ago on this blog I discussed some of the groundbreaking work of Antoine Bechara, MD, PhD and his work on why emotional input is critical for human decision making. He demonstrated that without it – subject with normal intelligence is unable to function.  We also know that an excess of emotion can adversely affect decision making and lead to errors both acutely and on an ongoing basis.

Propaganda has both a cognitive component (the lie) and a strong associated emotional component.  Supporters of the stolen election lie are clearly angry about getting a raw deal, about their rights being impinged up, about needing to take the law into their own hands, about someone treating them (or their candidate) unfairly, the list is quite lengthy but the emotion is always anger.

I don’t claim to know how to reverse that process.  I did take a course in how to deprogram cult members at one point and the main intervention was to get them away from the people influencing them.  Removing the continuous inaccurate social media messaging may be useful in that regard. An improvement in the general tone of the media may also be helpful.  Since the insurrection, the mainstream media seems a lot more willing to make determinations of what is accurate and what is a lie.  One lesson appears to be that even if the propaganda lie is labeled as misinformation that is probably not enough.  It will still be altered in a positive way and propagated for propaganda use.  Propaganda needs to be eliminated when there is obvious overwhelming evidence against it.

There also have to be organizations that are willing to step up and make a stand for accuracy to correct political misinformation.  Both Science and Nature the major general scientific publications have been doing that on an increasing basis.

And finally, there is the appeal to the individual. In some of my earlier writing on this blog about firearm violence I suggested that people self-monitor for violent or aggressive thinking and seek out help if they noticed this. My thoughts related this insurrection are no different.  Nobody should be thinking that American elections are rigged or that they need to take the country back from someone.  We all know how this democracy works and it has been working well for 200+ years.  It works well because of the concept of peaceful transfer of power and the associated traditions. In other words, it is about what is good for the country and its people and not an individual official.  The President is the President for all of the people and not half of the people and he or she serves at the will of the majority.

Let that sink in……


 George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary 1:  A poster on Twitter pointed out the rationale for the suspension of Trump's account.  The rationale is listed in this blog post.  Pay particular attention to the last 5 bullet points, especially bullet point 5:

"Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021."

I am hoping that there will be more than a few hundred National Guard troops present at the Inauguration and that Governors take these threats seriously, especially in states where gun advocates have succeeded in getting laws passed to carry firearms on state government property. I would suggest going as far as a temporary order to suspend firearms in proximity to the state capitols in addition to an adequate show of force to deter further antigovernment activity. 

Supplementary 2:  For anyone confused about what happened at the Capitol building it comes down to this:


1:  Lawrence H. Keeley.  War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, New York 1996.

2:  Robert Jay Lifton.  The Nazi Doctors. Basic Books, New York 1986: p 13.

Image Credit:  This is an image from the Capitol Building on Jan 6, 2021 from Shutterstock per their standard agreement.