Message from the Director

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

The past three months have challenged us like few others in our lifetimes. The crisis created by the COVID-19 Pandemic has been compounded by an act of stark brutality captured on video which, when we watch, has shaken our souls. Civic expressions of protests have been confounded by violent confrontations. Our country is in crisis and the world is suffering as well while watching. 

There is a cruel irony in the fact that racial and ethnic minorities have suffered disproportionately from both disasters, none more than African Americans.  The deadly effects of Covid-19 had already hit poor communities and of color the hardest, starkly exposing the inequity in health between affluent and white people and black and Latin Americans, when the obscene murder of George Floyd in Minnesota accentuated the racial disparities, and prejudices that sustain them, while igniting protests against racism and police brutality. 

Columbia Psychiatry and NYSPI have mobilized and pitched in to stem the surge of the pandemic. Frontline staff, faculty and trainees cared for and protected patients in the CPEP, inpatient units, ambulatory clinics and C&L services - and continue to do so - risking their own health and the health of their families. Our clinical faculty sprang into action providing guidance and support to their medical brothers and sisters in the ED, medical units and ICUs. It is what we do without hesitation or regard for personal safety to do our part in time of crisis.

Now we must do the same to address the racial injustice which permeates our society. It is not enough that we create a workplace environment of respect, fairness, honesty and safety at Columbia and NYSPI. We must do all we can to extend our values and principles to the society we live in beginning with our communities, city, state and country. 

Ethnic and racial minorities, and particularly African Americans have suffered too long. The discriminatory consequences of poverty, skin color, immigrant status are reflected by their higher rates of illness, shorter longevity, lower educational attainment and income. The unfavorable social, economic and health determinants extend to mental health as well. People of color are likely to be diagnosed as sicker and yet less likely to get care. Though experiencing the same rates of mental and substance use disorders, black and Hispanic children and young adults receive half the treatment. For children and youth of color, psychiatric and behavioral problems too often result in punitive actions (such as suspension, expulsion or incarceration) instead of mental health care. 

The COVID-19 crisis and the tragic death of George Floyd and too many others, have laid bare our nation’s inequities and discriminatory practices. The pernicious psychological effects of these national sins cannot be overstated. They erode our sense of integrity, decency and happiness. But we have the opportunity – and obligation – to act, to step outside our comfort zones and initiate change in our communities.              

A way to start is to endorse and live by the recommendations of the Association of American Medical Colleges:

  • We must acknowledge and speak out against all forms of racism, discrimination, and bias in our environments in our institutions, communities, and society.
  • We must stand in solidarity with the Black community and speak out against unjust and inhumane incidents of violence. 
  • We must demonstrate empathy and compassion and acknowledge the pain and grief that the families and the communities of these victims are experiencing.
  • We must take the lead in educating ourselves and others to address these issues.
  • We must be deliberate and partner with local communities, public health agencies, and municipal governments to dismantle structural racism and end police brutality. 
  • We must employ anti-racist and unconscious bias training and engage in interracial dialogues that will dispel the misrepresentations that dehumanize our Black community members and other marginalized groups.
  • We must move from rhetoric to action to eliminate the inequities in our care, research, and education of tomorrow’s doctors.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Nothing will work unless you do.” Emerging from this crisis will require all of us to pledge to work towards a better tomorrow – to commit to stand by all those who suffer from prejudice or discrimination, to fight for justice, and together to heal what is broken in our world.

Respectfully,

Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD
Lawrence C. Kolb Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry
Columbia University, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Director, New York State Psychiatric Institute
Psychiatrist-in-Chief, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Medical Center

Topics

Mental Health, Psychiatry