There was a monologue I had to memorize as a plebe (freshman) at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Compiled by Augustus Bell from letters written by the legendary John Paul Jones, “Qualifications of a Naval Officer” was rote fare for prospective officers in the Navy and Marine Corps.
The crux of these qualifications, according to Jones, was that Navy leaders “should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity.”
Jones led a fledgling United States Navy during a time of great uncertainty and volatility. Many characteristics were required during these hard days in our maritime past: toughness, physical strength, a high tolerance for bad food.
It is notable, then, that this revered progenitor of America’s Navy did not cite “hard” qualities, like the ability to lift heavy objects, sprint across the deck quickly, or raise a sheet efficiently. Instead, he focused on what we would consider “soft” qualities: tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, charity.
They didn’t call it this at the time, but Jones was telling his followers that mental health – and managing it among those in your care – was the key to good leadership. He understood that how we deal with uncertainty, fear, and failure were as important as how swiftly we sailed our ships or manned our guns. Maintaining and fostering mental health offers a powerful and vital advantage in times of crisis.
In short: mental health is national security.
And today, America’s is in peril.
According to a 2020 report by the Defense Health Agency, 44% of active-duty personnel reported experiencing “some degree of functional impairment due to psychological symptoms.” This is alarming and indicative of a growing problem in our military ranks. Soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines struggling with untreated mental health issues can lead to increased rates of attrition, decreased morale and cohesiveness, and a diminished ability to execute critical missions.
But it’s not just the military that is impacted by mental health challenges. Civilian leaders and policy professionals are subject to the same stressors brought on by managing uncertainty and navigating complex problems. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of leadership decision-making in high-stress situations. The World Health Organization reports that the pandemic led to a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide in 2020 compared to 2019.
Troublingly, the next generation of military and civilian leaders in national security is at risk, too. Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide among American children and teens is both tragic and limits the potential pool of the future defense workforce.
So how can we right this ship? The answer, for both military and civilian leaders, lies in proper mental health management. This starts with establishing systems that promote access to quality mental health care, reducing stigma, and cultivating a culture of resilience.
For the military, we must build upon efforts like the Defense Department’s psychological health programs and continue to ensure that mental health care is integrated into the comprehensive care provided to service members . Encouraging troops to seek professional help when needed is critical in changing the cultural perception about mental health, which promotes preparedness for rapid adaptation to the evolving battlespace. Leaders should talk about how they manage their mental health as much as they talk about the proper push-up form or how to crush it at the gym.
For civilian leaders, fostering mental health starts with prioritizing self-care, destigmatizing conversations around mental health, and normalizing seeking mental health care as essential to maintaining peak performance. Just like physical fitness, mental health maintenance should be an essential part of professional development. And critically, we need to prioritize making space for this instead of packing more work into already-packed bureaucratic schedules.
The effectiveness of our national security apparatus depends on its adaptability, its readiness, and its resilience. A “whole of government” approach that ensures mental health is a recognized and supported aspect of national security, will undoubtedly make our nation safer and more prepared for the challenges and uncertainties ahead.
By normalizing mental health with leadership, as John Paul Jones did, we can weave mental health management into the very fabric of national security. It is time we recognize that tending to the mind is as vital as tending to the body in ensuring our nation’s security, both for those in uniform and those in policymaking positions.
 Defense Health Agency. (2020). Psychological Health Annual Report. Retrieved from https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Total-Force-Fitness/Psychological-Fitness/2019-Psychological-Health-Annual-Report
 World Health Organization. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on mental, neurological, and substance use services. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240012458
 U.S. Department of Defense. (2018). DoD Psychotropic Medication Guidance. Retrieved from https://www.health.mil/Reference-Center/Policies/2018/09/07/DoD-Psychotropic-Medication-Guidance