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A former analyst on mental health support in the intelligence community


One night years ago, Heather Williams was out at a restaurant with friends.

HEATHER WILLIAMS: We were actually getting seated at a table to sit down for dinner, probably with about seven or eight of my friends.

KELLY: She says she doesn't remember quite why, but - and I need to warn, what is coming is graphic.

WILLIAMS: For some reason in the conversation, I brought up the fact that suicide bombers - when they use a suicide vest, it tends to separate the head from the body, and the head is still intact.

KELLY: Williams worked in the U.S. Intelligence Community. She had deployed overseas more than once. She says for her and her work friends, the decapitation detail was a fact, something they had all seen, either in videos or in person. But at this dinner, she was with her non-work friends.

WILLIAMS: I definitely remember suddenly hearing that there was no other sounds. You know, I had stopped the buzz of conversation, and everyone was looking at me awkwardly.

KELLY: Williams wrote about this awkward dinner and the research she has done since leaving U.S. Intelligence in Politico. And when I called to ask about it, she told me the violence of her line of work can cause trauma, trauma that she hadn't fully recognized until she left the government.

WILLIAMS: There's a variety of techniques that I think everybody uses when dealing with these sorts of situations - you know, gallows humor, for example, oh, you know, treating things very casually. And I was quite young when I first deployed. I deployed a few times over a decade. So I reflect back on that, and even the casual nature that I approached the problem now doesn't sit well with me. And I think there's a really important point here, a general point, which is the role of empathy in intelligence work. And I don't think that empathy is often recognized for the professional asset that it is.

KELLY: You're trying to understand what motivates them, what makes them tick, how they think.

WILLIAMS: That's right. And empathy brings a lot of complexity and layers to that understanding. And so people can deal with the emotional stress of this job by putting in place mental buffers, by not feeling, by dehumanizing your targets. That's a good coping skill, but it actually opens us up to cognitive biases, and it makes for less effective analysis.

KELLY: To what extent does this stuff - by which I mean mental health, how to cope with trauma - how often does this get talked about in the intelligence community?

WILLIAMS: Very rarely. So the intelligence community does not have an environment of mental wellness. I think that's fair to say. There have been some improvements. So over the last decade, the intelligence community has been changing the way that it asks people about mental health when they're pursuing their security clearances, for example, on their paperwork. The CIA just appointed a chief well-being officer two weeks ago. And there are employee services, and I think those are recognized as valuable if there's direct trauma. Let's say a co-worker commits suicide - you know, that there is a recognition that we need to bring in potential assistance there.

But the risks that come from, you know, 20 years or more of just dealing with very distasteful, violent, you know, negative content, and particularly today, where you are more often seeing that content, be it images or video, I think there's very poor understanding of the risks that that introduces for traumatic stress.

KELLY: I mentioned that you've now left government work. You work at the RAND Corporation, and y'all have studied the effects of trauma on people who do intelligence work. What have you heard as you interview people?

WILLIAMS: Right. I think one thing that is very clear to me from that work is just how much people want this issue to be talked about more. Also, that people don't actually have the right vocabulary sometimes to describe what they're feeling and recognize what they are feeling as traumatic stress that they have been exposed to. And the consequences vary, but there are consequences for individuals, but there are also consequences for the institution.

So retention is a really big one. I've heard many stories of individuals who needed to move inside of their jobs or leave the community because they weren't being appropriately supported. And retention, I think, is a really important issue for the intelligence community because of how much it costs to hire and to train intelligence professionals. And the fact that there's a - there's no machine like "Men In Black" with the flashy red light that, you know, deletes all the secrets from your brain when you leave. So you want to minimize how many people have worked in this community.

KELLY: That's interesting. So it's obviously in the interest of any employer to retain good staffers. But in this case, there's a security risk as well when you lose people.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

KELLY: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: It's higher stakes.

KELLY: Are you getting much reaction to this piece?

WILLIAMS: There has been an incredible reaction to this piece. So many of my former colleagues have approached me to say thank you, to say how much they appreciate attention being brought to this issue. And so many strangers have come to me - but members of the intelligence community. And I have heard lots of stories of people who - even if the traumatic exposures that they had didn't have direct negative consequences on their relationships or their jobs, just them recognizing that this is a problem and more needs to be done, I think, is the universal message.

KELLY: And stay with that, the more needs to be done. What specifically? Are there recommendations? What would you like to see intelligence community leaders do differently?

WILLIAMS: There are existing programs that the intelligence community could model after. So the good news here is that these problems are not unique to the intelligence world, but there are some unique dimensions to them when it comes to intelligence work. And so I think it would be important for the community to look at what those differences are, how you might adapt those programs. I think it's important to look at how to reduce stigma for seeking services would be a really big, important step.

KELLY: Yeah. Before I let you go, how are you doing? Has it gotten easier?

WILLIAMS: I mean, I think I'm doing well. And I think it has gotten easier in the sense that I don't live in this world every day. I still do a lot of work on mass violence in the course of my research at RAND, but we've actually been thinking about secondary trauma exposure because of that type of work that we also do because I work alongside clinical psychologists who think about this. And so we talk about it a lot. And we talk about the need to take breaks, the need to be aware of your mental state. You know, I have a rule that I don't do mass violence after 10 p.m., you know?

So - but I think that in the midst of the work I was doing, the counterterrorism work I was doing in deployments, it was too rushed to kind of really be thinking about these things. So I think now that, for the most part, most of the intelligence professionals who were forward in the thick of the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are no longer there, they're at home, there's a little bit more space to reflect on what the consequences were for the way in which intelligence became very forward positioned in those conflicts and how that is different than perhaps how intelligence and the intelligence community was involved in military complex in the past.

KELLY: Heather Williams, thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

KELLY: She was a deputy national intelligence officer at the National Intelligence Council. She's now at RAND. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.