Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jessica Lauren Walton Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Acceptance. Whatever is in your control, master it. Whatever is not in your control, let it go.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jessica Lauren Walton.
Jessica Lauren Walton is a writer, communications strategist, and video producer in the U.S. defense industry. She recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence. She continues to write articles on a range of security and mental health issues and has conducted interviews with defense leadership, military veterans, filmmakers, psychologists, journalists, and more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a loving orthodox Jewish community in Potomac, Maryland. As a kid, I grew up fascinated by the heroism and excitement of the security field. Near the end of high school, I completed an internship with the local police forces. Soon after, I immigrated to Israel and enrolled in the criminology program at Bar Ilan University, but quickly realized I was in over my head tackling a bachelors degree in Hebrew, so I switched to English literature. It turned out to be a valuable detour that ignited a love for storytelling and sharpened my skills as a writer.
By the time I was nineteen, I was invited to enroll in the direct-PhD program on a track to become a professor. I thought my path was set. In my free time in Tel Aviv, I hung out a lot with a group of elite military commandos. They rekindled my interest in the world of security with their wild stories and tolerated me asking them a million questions. They encouraged me to consider working in national security, in light of all the difficult circumstances taking place in Israel at the time. (In just the first few years I lived in Israel, there was the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, and the Gaza Disengagement.) I returned to the U.S. in 2007, enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs to get my master’s degree in security intelligence. Following my studies, I served in the Israeli military and worked several oddball jobs in the security field while pursuing my dream of working for Israeli intelligence.
You are currently leading an initiative that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit more specifically about what you are trying to address?
I want to help tackle the stigma of mental illness in the security field. Many security professionals suffer in silence for fear of losing their jobs or the respect of their colleagues. But we can’t afford for mental health to be a taboo subject in the security community; it is literally killing thousands of us. Since 2001, more U.S. military service members have died of suicide than in combat. Our emergency first responders are suffering from post-traumatic stress in record numbers. Alcohol abuse runs high in the intelligence community. From police officers to border patrol agents to soldiers, security professionals are afraid of the consequences of asking for help and are struggling with high rates of mental health problems as a result.
When I was twenty years old, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It turned my world upside down. I also suffered from severe anxiety that resulted in panic attacks and insomnia. I hid my condition for years from the security community. Along the way, I met other soldiers and security professionals — both in the U.S. and Israel — who were also hiding their mental health issues for fear of losing their jobs. This is the subject of my recently completed memoir, (In)Security, which I hope will illuminate the complex struggles of mental illness and the toll it takes on one’s sense of belonging in a community.
I’m also writing articles and interviewing defense leadership, military veterans, psychologists, journalists, filmmakers, and others to provide multidisciplinary perspectives on mental wellness in our society. In addition to the security community, I’m looking for opportunities to speak to college students and young professionals about mental resilience. I want to provide others with the tools to overcome challenges based on the lessons I learned as a young student and soldier struggling to succeed in a demanding profession.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Back in 2003, I immigrated to Israel as a teenager and became close friends with a fellow immigrant from Russia named Roman. He was a brilliant IDF commando with dreams of getting accepted into the Mossad, Israel’s premier intelligence agency. He was ultimately disqualified when it was discovered that he had bipolar disorder. He committed suicide as a result.
Barely three years before this tragic incident, I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder myself. The sad irony of this whole situation is that my friend and I were both so ashamed of our illness that instead of supporting each other, we hid it from each other. (I only found out about Roman’s diagnosis from a family member after his suicide.) As wild as this story may sound, it is actually not an unusual scenario in the security field. As I mentioned before, shame and fear regarding mental illness is deeply ingrained in this culture.
Today, I’m free of the illness and have been off my medication for almost a decade, which if you know anything about bipolar disorder is extremely rare. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life. I’m also very privileged to have come to a point where I’m not afraid of losing a job or relationship due to being open about my mental health history. I want to use this opportunity to speak out for all of the other security professionals who are still suffering in silence.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Near the end of graduate school in 2011, I confided in a professor, a former Israeli intelligence officer, about my mental health situation. He responded by throwing me out of his office and stripping me of my reference letter. I was a straight-A student in the extended graduate program in political violence and terrorism in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University at the time. I decided right then and there that if I ever left the security community, I would write a memoir about it. And indeed, a few days before my 30th birthday, I declined an offer to try out for a prestigious role in intelligence that would have taken my security career to the next level. I went home that day to start working on my memoir instead.
Although I no longer work in Israeli security, I’m extremely supportive of this community and care very much about the security of the State of Israel. The cultural issues I’m describing are not unique to Israeli security, but are in fact endemic to many agencies across the globe. As an example, I recently interviewed filmmaker Conrad Weaver about his documentary PTSD911 covering the mental health crisis among first responders in the U.S. He told me that within months of the documentary’s premiere, he was getting phone calls from Belgium, Ireland, and Ukraine to come screen the film because their first responder communities were dealing with similar issues.
I’m not bitter about anything that happened to me in the past because it’s led me to where I am now. I feel so lucky. Today, I have a full-time job in the U.S. defense industry and a young family, so as you can imagine it’s not easy squeezing in interviews, writing, and reaching out to literary agents for my memoir, but I push to do a little bit each day and it adds up.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your initiative?
Due to the promotional activities around my memoir, I recently started coming out to people about my mental health history, including to a friend from the CIA who I thought would be angry with the fact that I hid a mental illness for years from the security community. Not only was she not angry, she was completely understanding and supportive. What’s interesting — actually shocking to me — is that instead of slamming doors in my face, the people I’ve opened up to recently are practically jumping to help me. Whether it’s with networking or promoting my writing or inviting me to speak to college students, being open about my story has been opening doors for me in ways I didn’t anticipate.
I’ll admit after so many years of hiding, I’m still a little anxious every time I talk about my mental health story. I actually considered publishing my memoir under a pseudonym, but decided against it after realizing what a negative message it would send to others suffering with mental health issues. It might take some time before I stop feeling a little jittery, but I’m very grateful for the responses so far.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
First, my family has been foundational. I’m fortunate to have been born into this world to wonderful parents. Even while living abroad for over a decade, even during the loneliest days during my military service or private security work in Eastern Europe, I always knew that I had a loving home as my foundation. My mother especially has always been supportive of my writing and continues to be my toughest editor.
Another person who was instrumental in my life was an Israeli psychologist I met in graduate school in Jerusalem who confided in me that he hid his depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) from the security community so he could serve in a prestigious military intelligence unit. As detailed in my memoir, he helped me navigate my complicated situation with the military and pushed me to keep going when I considered giving up. If it wasn’t for him, the loneliness of my situation would have been unbearable.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
There’s this uncomfortable reality about mental illness which is that sometimes the lines blur between someone’s personality and the illness itself. I certainly experienced this when I started exhibiting the first symptoms of bipolar disorder in my late teens, about a year after arriving in Israel. I didn’t realize immediately that I was sick. As an example, I had a depressive episode that lasted for weeks in which I slept sixteen hours a day and barely ate and I wrote it off as being lazy. When it was clear that something more serious was going on with my mental health, many of my friends were teenagers like me and had no idea how to react to my new behavior. As a result, I lost a few friends along the way.
I think there’s also a general lack of understanding around mental illness. We’re in a much better place today than we were in the past, but for centuries the mentally ill were treated no better than criminals. During the Middle Ages, sufferers were either imprisoned or burned at the stake. Even today, stigmatization of mental illness persists. Sufferers are often written off as unpredictable, unreliable, and dangerous without an understanding of the wide range of mental health issues that are more common than we realize in our society. The more awareness we can bring to the table, the better off we’ll be as a society.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
As individuals: Don’t automatically judge or reject someone for having a mental illness. Treat them with compassion, openness, and even a touch of humor. Educate yourself about the neuroscience behind different mental health issues. (I recommend Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast Huberman Lab.)
As a society: Create safety nets and alternatives. If a combat soldier can’t continue serving in combat due to PTSD, for example, make sure there is immediately another meaningful job open to him so he can still be included in his community.
As our government: Designate budgets for mental wellness programs in the security community. Make it mandatory for security professionals in high-intensity roles — such as first responders — to go to therapy on a regular basis so that there’s no stigma attached to receiving help. Legislate guardrails to protect someone’s job if there’s a possibility for them to receive treatment for their illness and return to their role in the future.
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own well-being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. Physical exercise. This is essential for every human being, but even more so for those struggling with their mental health. When I was “weaning” myself off my psychiatric medication before joining the military, my Israeli psychologist friend I mentioned convinced me to join a high-intensity fitness class. It changed my life and probably helped smooth the transition for getting off my meds.
2. Sense of humor. Laughter is strong medicine. Having a sense of humor when dealing with mental illness can take the tension down a notch and serve as an effective tool for catharsis and connection with others. Despite some of the heavy topic material, there is actually a lot of humor in my memoir as the characters come to terms with their difficult situations. (As an example: “If you think I talk fast now, just wait until you hear me manic…”)
3. Stop apologizing. It took me awhile to stop acting like I committed a crime by having a mental illness, especially after that professor threw me out of his office. I don’t apologize for my mental health history anymore.
4. Take a break. Some days are harder than others. Take a break when you need to and start over the next day. (I highly recommend getting a massage.)
5. Acceptance. Whatever is in your control, master it. Whatever is not in your control, let it go.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I was very inspired by Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her journey to become a world renowned academic and medical expert in the very illness she suffered from. There was a scene in the book in which she goes into explicit detail about a manic episode she was experiencing and it was the first time someone had explained what I had experienced so acutely. I cried while reading it. It made me feel less lonely. It also helped me see a path forward in which you could live a full life in the face of illness or at least be open about it without your career being burned to the ground. Her book has no doubt saved lives.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
We are all born into this world with strengths and weaknesses. We are also given a set of innate skills. Whatever those skills are, hone them and use them to bring more light into this world. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and have worked hard over the years to hone my craft. I’m eager now to use my writing to conduct interviews with experts and produce stories about best practices to promote mental wellness — in the security community in particular and in society in general. If my work saves even a single life, it will all be worth it.
How can our readers follow you online?
To follow my blog and learn more about my forthcoming memoir, (In)Security, visit www.jessicawaltonwriter.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Inspired by the father of PR, Edward Bernays (who was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew), Michelle Tennant Nicholson researches marketing, mental injury, and what it takes for optimal human development. An award-winning writer and publicist, she’s seen PR transition from typewriters to Twitter. Michelle co-founded WasabiPublicity.com.