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Mental health in the Foreign Service

Views of the President

BY TOM YAZDGERDI

It is gratifying to see The Foreign Service Journal This issue focuses on mental health in the Foreign Service. For too long, seeking mental health help has been associated with stigma and fear—you might lose your security clearance or be seen as weak and unfit for Foreign Service work.

Back then, the response to anyone who needed help was, “Pull yourself together, Buttercup.” While more needs to be done, thankfully we are moving beyond that mindset, which was clearly not the right way to approach the issue of mental health in the Foreign Service or anywhere else.

Thank you to everyone who contributed their thoughts and stories to this issue. I am especially pleased that Ambassador John Bass, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs (and Under Secretary of State for Management), emphasizes that “requesting and receiving treatment is actually viewed favorably in the security clearance assessment process” and “in and of itself is not and will not be grounds for a negative security assessment – period.”

Under Secretary Bass also shares his own need to seek help during difficult times in his life. When our department leaders talk openly about protecting their mental health, it gives other employees the confidence to do the same.

While our profession is rewarding and fulfilling, it also brings with it many unique stressors. Relocating every two to three years, working virtually 24/7 as a representative of the American people abroad, often living in inhospitable and dangerous environments, dealing with crises of all kinds, and sometimes being separated from family and friends for long periods of time is stressful.

I’m sure most of us, if not all, have experienced times in our careers when things seemed overwhelming. For me, one of those times was when I served as the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader and then as Consul General in Kirkuk, Iraq from 2011 to 2012.

The work was incredibly interesting, but because we were exposed to rocket attacks three to four times a week and living in spartan conditions on an abandoned Iraqi air base, I could sometimes feel our team falling apart. This was especially the case when, in early 2012, a rocket attack tragically killed two young US soldiers who lived just 150 metres away from us. They were there to help train the Iraqi army.

Back then, mental health services weren’t as plentiful as they are today, but I was grateful that a local psychologist came to Kirkuk regularly to check on our wellbeing. Although I must admit I was a little skeptical at first, these visits proved to be enormously helpful.

This person, who is still with the Bureau of Medical Services (MED), spoke to almost each of us personally and gave me ideas on how to ease the stress for myself and my team. Being able to talk to a trained professional about the difficulties we were all going through made us feel better.

As attitudes toward treating mental health issues in the Foreign Service have changed, AFSA has advocated for the hiring of more mental health professionals and for greater and more comprehensive access to mental health services for our members. Section 6222 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2024 addresses improving mental health services for the Foreign Service and Civil Service.

Section 6222 requires the Secretary to hire at least 10 additional MED staff members. It requires the Secretary to submit a report on the availability of mental health care providers at diplomatic missions and in the United States and on measures to improve such availability.

While this provision is a welcome development and has the force of law, adequate funding is required for its full implementation. As you may know, the Department’s budget for fiscal year 2024 was cut by 6 percent, making these increased mental health resources uncertain. AFSA will continue to work with Department leadership to make this funding a priority, as it is so desperately needed.

Please let me know your thoughts at mailto:[email protected] or mailto:[email protected].

Tom Yazdgerdi is president of the American Foreign Service Association.

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