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IAVA | June 19, 2019

Read: Is Your Mental Health Classified?

Written by Dennis Higgins, former IAVA Veterans Transition Manager

It’s difficult to seek mental health treatment. Even when you decide to go, it’s difficult to invest yourself in the treatment and actually open up. I started going to a therapist in 2012, about a year and a half after I separated from the military. It wasn’t until about 2015 that I actually started opening up and acknowledged my feelings. Keep in mind that when I finally started taking therapy seriously, I was in my second year of a mental health graduate program. My entire life since separation was preparing to be a therapist and even I was resistant to actually opening up and exploring the difficult and painful emotions in therapy. So, I understand that therapy is difficult for us just on general principle. But what happens when what you need to talk about is classified? When your therapist asks what is on your mind, you can’t say that you’ll tell them, but you’d have to kill them.

Classified information and mental health have a long and complicated relationship. How many people with a security clearance believed that it would be revoked if they went to therapy? Pretty much everyone I served with and anyone I’ve talked to since. This is even when there is a memo saying that voluntarily entering mental health treatment will not affect your clearance. That is a powerful misconception and the absence of treatment actually has a negative effect on emotional stability and job effectiveness and could lead to the very problems that the security clearance process is designed to prevent.

This sounds like an unwinnable situation. To talk about the things that are causing these problems to someone who doesn’t have a “need to know” could be considered a violation of the law. This is particularly true when special access programs or sensitive compartmentalized information is involved. If your therapist isn’t “read on” to your mission, how can you talk to them about the stressors that come from it? And what if you have separated from service and your therapist is a civilian without a security clearance? All of these questions are valid.

You’re not going to be able to get your civilian therapist read on to your SAP, and you’d be hard pressed for that to happen with your government therapist either. So, what do you do? You get creative and tell your story without the classified bits. Here is a completely fictional account that illustrates the point:

Elaine is a former signals intelligence NCO with the Army. While in, she was part of the completely fictional Top Secret MIND BENDER program which gathered intelligence from the brainwaves of individuals under surveillance. During one of her deployments to an undisclosed nation that the U.S. cannot confirm that there are active troops in, she intercepted some particularly harrowing thoughts from a person of interest regarding a mass execution and burial. The graphic nature of these thoughts certainly qualify as the triggering criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, as witnessing the events remotely can lead to it as much as being there. Elaine hasn’t been sleeping, she dreads going to work and has been finding excuses to not be there. She has also been drinking more. If she doesn’t go to therapy, her drinking and absence from work could get her fired. However, if Elaine went to therapy and didn’t talk about whose mind she read or even that she witnessed it through mind reading and just focused on the imagery, she wouldn’t be breaking the law. How she saw it is less important than what she saw. If a therapist gets hung up on how she witnessed this, they are missing the point—outside of making sure Elaine isn’t delusional. But by talking about what it was like witnessing this event and not being able to stop it, the therapist and Elaine can bring forth the unconscious processes around the event and work through them—the ultimate goal of therapy.

It can be easy to get caught up in the wrong parts of the narrative when discussing your military experiences with a therapist. For both you and the therapist. I can tell you from personal experience as both a patient and as a therapist that when a therapist has a patient with a unique story, you are curious about it. Especially when it has the glamour and mystique of classified military operations. Ultimately, most of that has nothing to do with the work that needs to be done in therapy. The details of what someone in the intelligence community does is irrelevant compared to what that person feels as a result of those actions. Talking about what affects you is a very small part of the therapeutic process compared to talking about how it affects you. Focus in your response to the events and not the details surrounding the events.

It is completely understandable to be resistant to discussing certain subjects with your therapist, particularly when classified information is involved. By focusing on our internal feelings, which are not part of any government’s intellectual property, instead of the external details, which very well could be, we are able to work through those feelings and memories that cause us pain and ultimately grow from it.

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