On January 30, 2017, Acting United States Attorney General Sally Yates was infamously fired by Donald Trump after she instructed the Justice Department not to make legal arguments defending the order which temporarily banned the admission of refugees and barred travel from certain Muslim-majority countries (her decision was later upheld). Just two short weeks later, Yates made one of her first public appearances at a National Dialogue on Race in Atlanta at the Carter Presidential Library. While Yates was simply there as a guest of honor and not participant in the event, the surprised crowd burst into a standing ovation as she entered the auditorium and, with a small wave, took her seat.
Over the years, I have had a few opportunities to be around Sally Yates in various professional settings. As one of the conference organizers, I had the privilege of having dinner with her that evening. During the course of conversation, someone asked her what was coming next for her. With a smile, she said she would be taking some time to decide. We chatted about the need to step back and reset after the kind of intense pressure and public scrutiny she was under. We talked about career burnout, toxic stress, and self-care. At the time, I had no idea how close to home that actually was for her.
Sally Yates’ father, also an attorney, died by suicide at the age of 56 in 1986, shortly before her law school graduation. Yates, now a partner in King & Spalding’s Atlanta office, shared the story of his suicide at the 2019 Dorothy C. Fuqua Lecture last Wednesday aimed at raising awareness for suicide prevention. Last year, she also spoke with David Axelrod on his podcast, The Axe Files about her father. While causes, symptoms, and signs of suicidal ideation can look different person to person, decreasing the stigma around talking about mental health lowers the barriers to getting the support people need.
I am grateful for public figures and leaders like Sally Yates who use their platform and their experience for the greater good of making us all healthier and more resilient.