Congressman Tim Murphy and Dr. Michael Welner confer at hearing.
(4-19-17) This story in today’s Wall Street Journal by Michelle Hackman supports what I reported in a blog last month about efforts by Republican Pennsylvania Representative Tim Murphy to get Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and the White House to appoint Dr. Michael Welner as the first Assistant Secretary for mental health. Whether this appointment will really happen, however, is still anyone’s guess given the oftentimes erratic temperament of the White House.
Trump’s Latest Pick for Mental-Health Post Has Helped Prosecutors Secure Convictions
Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner has testified in high-profile cases; on television, he has called killers ‘alienated losers’
By Michelle Hackman published in The Wall Street Journal.
WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is struggling to fill a top mental-health post, a job created last year to coordinate the efforts of far-flung federal agencies.
The assistant secretary position in the Department of Health and Human Services was first offered to a Florida judge, but the offer was withdrawn due to his lack of a medical background, according to people familiar with the matter. A second candidate had broad support but pulled out.
Now a leading contender is Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist who has testified for the prosecution in numerous high-profile criminal cases, according to a half-dozen people familiar with the process including Dr. Welner himself. He faces opposition for some controversial positions.
He has made a career of testifying in court about the psychiatric state of people accused of crimes including murder and terrorism, often challenging other experts in arguing that defendants understood their actions.
Some advocates consider him a pioneer with a keen understanding of mental illness and violence. Dr. Welner’s candidacy is supported by the American Psychiatric Association, which noted that he “has worked in the private sector for over 25 years.”
But critics say his legal testimony often conflates mental illness with criminal intent.
Embarrassment to Profession
“He is an embarrassment to our profession in that he spouts, as facts, opinions that are in no way based on scientific evidence,” said Xavier Amador, director of the Leap Institute, which trains mental-health and police professionals.
The mental-health position at HHS was created last year as part of a broader law called the 21st Century Cures Act. Rep. Tim Murphy (R., Pa.) pushed for it as a way to coordinate various agencies involved with mental health.
The position, along with other mental-health initiatives in the law, was in part a response to the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., of 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school. Democrats called for more gun-control measures, while many Republicans focused on the shooter’s mental-health problems.
Whoever gets the role will gain a prominent perch in the Trump administration at a time when government officials are increasingly focused on the nationwide opiate crisis and on tamping down on violence perpetrated by people with severe mental illnesses.
HHS Secretary Tom Price first offered the job to Steven Leifman, a Florida judge who’s gained attention for efforts to divert people with severe mental illnesses from jail. That offer has been pulled back, people familiar with the matter said, adding that Mr. Murphy objected to Judge Leifman’s lack of medical experience.
Mr. Murphy’s office and Judge Leifman declined to comment.
John Wernert, who headed mental-health policy in Indiana when Vice President Mike Pence was governor, was also considered a strong contender, but withdrew without giving a public reason. Elinore McCance-Katz, chief medical officer of Rhode Island’s Department of Behavioral Health, is also being considered.
An Early Trump Supporter
But Dr. Welner, an early Donald Trump supporter who appeared on television during the campaign to vouch for the candidate’s mental health, has the edge, according to people familiar with the matter, in part because Mr. Murphy backs him.
“Dr. Murphy sought out Dr. Welner, one of the nation’s foremost authorities in crisis psychiatry, to lend his expertise throughout the oversight process during the multiyear investigation into our nation’s broken mental-health system, as well during the development of the groundbreaking Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, signed into law last year,” said Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Rep. Murphy. “Dr. Welner has been and remains an unqualified supporter of President Donald Trump and his agenda to help families in psychiatric and addiction crisis.”
The congressman became interested in Dr. Welner’s work following the Newtown shooting, when the psychiatrist appeared on CNN and elsewhere to discuss the shooter’s motives. Mr. Murphy then enlisted Dr. Welner in helping to draft the mental-health legislation.
Among his peers, Dr. Welner is best known for his work on the “depravity standard,” which aims to create scientific tests to help juries determine which behaviors qualify as especially heinous. With an unbiased measure, the theory goes, courts could apply appropriate sentences without unconscious prejudice.
That approach has been criticized for disguising moral judgments as scientific analysis.
“The role of the forensic psychiatrist is to evaluate a person and say what factors—biological, psychological, social—contributed to the offenses they committed, and not to pass judgment on how bad the crime was,” said Reena Kapoor, associate director of the forensic psychiatry fellowship at Yale University.
Expertise Beyond Reproach
But others say Dr. Welner’s expertise is beyond reproach.
“Dr. Welner’s broad knowledge of mental health and substance abuse, his commitment to treating persons with [severe mental illnesses], and his passion for excellence make him an ideal candidate,” Lewis A. Opler, former chief medical officer for New York state’s Department of Mental Health, wrote in endorsing Dr. Welner.
Dr. Welner said in an interview last week that the post would provide a rare opportunity to make a broad impact. He said he interviewed with Dr. Price about the position in March.
“All my life I have been cleaning up messes from tragedies that have already happened,” he said. “The idea of devoting my energies to preventing messes from happening is why I went into medicine in the first place.”
Dr. Welner has conducted psychiatric analyses for several high-profile prosecutions. He helped convince a judge that Brian David Mitchell, the self-proclaimed prophet who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, was competent to stand trial despite previous rulings to the contrary.
During the retrial of Andrea Yates, a Texas woman who was convicted of drowning her children in a bathtub, Dr. Welner argued Ms. Yates had planned her actions and was therefore legally sane. Ms. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Dr. Welner said that his work in those cases was accurate and scientific and that, in other cases, his testimony “has enabled those with genuine illness to be given added consideration, hospitalization, and even release.”
Dr. Welner has made numerous television appearances, describing killers on air as “depraved,” “evil” and “alienated losers.”
On occasion his commentary has strayed from criminal matters. During the recent presidential campaign, Dr. Welner told CNN that Mr. Trump was “the embodiment of healthy narcissism.”
Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]