The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2016
62 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2016 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL STATE VP VOICE | BY WILLIAM HAUGH AFSA NEWS Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 647-8160 This issue’s State VP Voice is by guest columnist and AFSA Governing Board Secretary William Haugh. At more than 200 posts around the world, in Wash- ington and across the nation, the strength of American diplomacy begins with a Foreign Service whose mem- bers are competent, smart, energetic, creative, caring and resilient. It (almost) goes without saying that the men- tal health and well-being of every member of the Foreign Service family is fundamen- tal to a “strong diplomacy”— a guiding objective of this AFSA Governing Board. The Foreign Service life- style means constant moves, dangerous and unhealthy environments, and unaccom- panied assignments to active war zones. Our competitive Service rewards good work. At the same time, it coldly identifies those it deems not making the grade. Even the term “rank in person”—the concept at the core of the FS system—gives an inkling of the all-consuming nature of a career with a permeable boundary between work and personal life. If this stress is an inevi- table part of the Foreign Service, we need to deal with it on two levels: • The State Department has a duty to provide mental health care not only because of legal obligations under the Foreign Service Act of A Strong Foreign Service Begets Strong Diplomacy 1980, but because there is a moral obligation to take care of our people when they and their families experience psychological distress as a result of faithfully fulfilling their duties in difficult and extreme circumstances. The department’s medical program has been a lifesaver for many throughout the years. But, even scratching the surface of this topic—as this issue of The Foreign Ser- vice Journal does—reveals perceived shortfalls. This is not a reflection on the Office of Medical Services’ practi- tioners, rather a call for the department to take a serious look at a system with great merits, but also perceived weakness in its approach to emerging challenges. • We in the Foreign Ser- vice should take responsibil- ity to foster our own resil- ience and care for our own mental health. Many good things are happening already: Balanc- ing Act aims to reduce stress on working parents and families; the Foreign Service Institute’s Resilience Project uses research to help com- munities adapt to adversity; the Culture of Leadership Initiative highlights the crucial role of positive lead- ers; the Diplomatic Security Peer Support Group helps DS agents involved in high- stress incidents; work-life initiatives promote access to lactation rooms and bike-to- work programs. AFSA supports and col- laborates with many of these programs and urges mem- bers to become involved where and when they can. Regarding existing institu- tional mental health support for members of the Foreign Service and their families, three themes merit atten- tion: 1. Confidentiality. Many within the Service view the department’s medical pro- gram as not truly confiden- tial and fear that using the system may jeopardize their medical or security clear- ances. This is a longstanding and widespread concern, frequently addressed by MED, but in unconvincing ways. AFSA believes it’s time for a comprehensive review of MED’s confidentiality procedures. 2. Stress and Resilience. With unaccompanied tours and high-threat/high-stress posts a permanent feature of the assignment land- scape, AFSA believes the department’s Deployment Stress Management Pro- gram should have top-level support and receive the resources to care for the Foreign Service community, while proactively promoting resilience. 3. The Clearance Process. There is confusion (even resentment) among some Foreign Service per- sonnel over the clearance system for mental health and medical conditions. Member input suggests the basis for medical clearance decisions has never been more unclear; some say that MED is overly permissive in some instances, unreason- ably restrictive in others, and the quality review process seems neither rigorous nor independent. AFSA asks the department to address these concerns and make the clearance process fair, understandable and mean- ingful. The Foreign Service Act calls for “minimizing the impact of the hardships, dis- ruptions, and other unusual conditions of service abroad upon the members of the Foreign Service, and miti- gating the special impact of such conditions upon their families.” On behalf of its 16,500 members, AFSA wants to see results from the many ongoing efforts to promote the mental health and well-being of our com- munity. n William Haugh retired from the Senior Foreign Service in April 2015 after a 35-year career that included assignments in Washing- ton, D.C., Rome, Stockholm, Abidjan, Baghdad, Tunis and Halifax. He is currently a Re-employed Annuitant with the Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.