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national security and mental health

The National Security Community Has a Mental Health Problem

It's time to talk about it.

Pictures: Anthony Tran

Everybody has a “thing.” My thing is counting. OCD… 1,2,3.

Sometimes, my thing is beautiful. Eight counts commanding a body across a wooden floor in dance. Each number a set of instructions. Guidance towards creating a work of art.

Sometimes, my thing makes me laugh. For example, Feist’s song “1234” metamorphosizes into “123456789101112” when I sing it in my head, and I can’t help but to giggle at the ridiculousness.

Sometimes, my thing is soothing. When I rest my head on the chest of a friend, listening to the nonchalant thump of their heartbeat, each count reminds me that I’m not alone.

Most of the time, however, it is not.

Most of the time, my thing is vicious and violent. When I run, I cannot stop counting. It’s not a peaceful, meditative count. It’s fast and chaotic, incapable of choosing between matching the rate at which my heart tries to pump blood to my limbs and the rate at which my feet slap against the pavement. So, without rhythm, the counting loudly ricochets between the two. Inconsistent and unstoppable. I can’t stop running until I finish counting… but, I’m never done counting. My body will give out before my mind, and I will collapse. Miles from home, I will then switch to counting all the times I have wished I could simply stop.

Most of the time, my thing will bring along unwanted guests. Three of them, to be exact: Anxiety, Depression, and Trichotillomania. Trichotillomania (16 letters), according to the Mayo Clinic is: “a mental disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair… despite trying to stop.” I used to have long, beautiful blonde hair. But I couldn’t stop. Pulling, and counting, counting and pulling. 87: the number of times I have tried to actively train myself to stop pulling out my hair. 2,555: the number of days I have been unsuccessful at doing so. After several failed attempts, anxiety always comes slinking along. “You used to be pretty. What is wrong with you?” it will hiss, “Jesus fucking Christ, why can’t you just be normal? No one else does this. Everyone is looking at you.” And with the right amount of self-loathing, Anxiety’s ugly friend is summoned: Depression. It wraps its lukewarm, gray cloud around each strand of hair, each number that has lined itself up neatly just behind my skull. “None of this matters,” it will whisper. A pattern emerges in its wake, “1… this doesn’t matter. 2… you don’t matter. 3…this is all insignificant. 4…you are insignificant.” (Repeat, ad nauseam).

18: the number of years it took me to get a diagnosis. 23: the number of years it took for me to talk about my mental health publicly.

Most of the time (okay, all of the time), my thing requires medication. 10 mg. It’s a small, innocent, tan pill. I take it (almost) every morning. Even though it makes me incredibly nauseous, it helps to stop the counting (et. al.). And I hate it. I hate swallowing a daily reminder that I am inferior. But I guess a little nausea and humility are better than existential despair.

18: the number of years it took me to get a diagnosis. 23: the number of years it took for me to talk about my mental health publicly.

By now, you’re probably asking, “Okay… So what’s your point?”

I am not writing this as a therapeutic or cathartic endeavor. Rather, I am writing this for precisely the opposite reason: because it is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable telling various colleagues and peers via an online platform that there is something “wrong” with me. It is uncomfortable writing the letters “medication” and “OCD” down on the Internet where all my current and future national security employers can see it, and potentially use it against me. It is uncomfortable not to be “A-Okay” in this line of work… and that, in itself, is not okay.

14: the number of times I considered publishing this article anonymously. 15: the number of times I said, “Screw it. Someone needs to talk about it… Might as well be you.” to myself.

In national security, existential issues of the most serious caliber are discussed on the daily. Words and concepts like “nuclear weapon” and “regime change” and even “war” are thrown around with an eerie lightness. But as soon as someone mentions “mental health,” everyone goes silent. In the past, when I have tried to bring up the subject, I’ve been politely told, “maybe you shouldn’t talk about that,” or, “you have to be more careful discussing that (read: OCD) if you want a clearance!”

9: peers of mine in the field that have privately messaged me, or told me in person, within the last 3 months that they weren’t doing okay, and they didn’t know whom else they could tell. 5: number of my friends that have started weaning themselves off of their anti-depressants, and stopped seeing their therapists and psychiatrist as they have begun clearance processes.

But is mental wellbeing really the price one must pay for a TS/SCI? Why are mental security and national security so often painted as incongruent?

For a group of peers that is always at the ready to dissect and analyze every new policy, news article, meeting, event, and tweet, it is ironic that the national security community is so hesitant to conduct a self-reflection. As a community, we remain resistant to mental health assessments. Most of us were taught that bottom-up analyses were valuable, yet we appear to not be practicing what we preach by disregarding the mental wellbeing of the national security practitioners themselves.

So, it’s time to start talking about it. Destigmatization is a process that won’t happen overnight. (And I am irritated by the fact that I cannot count how many days it will take.) But, hopefully, by having conversations like these, by talking about our “things,” by discussing mental health issues in an open, honest, and vulnerable manner, we can begin to expedite that process.

Jamie Withorne


Jamie Withorne is a Research Assistant and Office Manager with the Middlebury Institute in Washington D.C., and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Prior to joining CNS and MIIS, Jamie has held research and policy internships at Global Zero, the American Enterprise Institute, and the U.S. Department of State. Her research interests include emerging technologies, missile defense, and arms control agreements.


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