Sunday Read: The Whistleblower Mental State & its Struggles

National Whistleblower Center
6 min readMay 20, 2024


This article highlighting mental health awareness was sent as part of NWC’s “Sunday Read” series. For more information like this, please join our mailing list.

Content warning: The following article contains some detail regarding sensitive themes and topics, such as mention of suicide.

National Mental Health month is an integral time of the year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and only half of them receive treatment.

National Whistleblower Center (NWC) recently “took the moment,” as NAMI suggests in its campaign, to speak with Whistleblowers of America Founder Jackie Garrick for her unique views regarding why coming forward can create mental health challenges and ways to overcome them.

Our Mental Health Awareness Month coverage continues this week. In the Sunday Read, we take another moment to discuss the sensitive topic of suicide, which is directly related to mental health struggles. We provide insight into certain etiquette when discussing suicide, discuss NWC’s efforts to demand a proper investigation into a high-profile suicide, and highlight the achievements of a whistleblower who overcame the extreme challenges to her mental health.

Facts on Suicide

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the country, with this preventable act claiming 49,000 lives in 2022. This equates to one death every 11 minutes, and was among the top 9 leading causes of death for people ages 10–64. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10–14 and 20–34.

These tragic and preventable events unfortunately permeate whistleblower law, as we recently in a case connected to the safety and quality of Boeing’s airliners.

Taking Action Following a High-Profile Tragedy

NWC was saddened and shocked in March to learn of the untimely death of John Barnett, 62, a former Boeing employee known for raising concerns about the firm’s production standards.

Barnett’s cause of death has been determined to be self-inflicted and his passing has sent shockwaves through the whistleblower community. As a vocal whistleblower protecting the lives of travelers with one of the largest airplane suppliers in the world, Barnett’s contributions to public safety cannot be understated.

NWC will not stand idly by and let Barnett’s warnings go unheeded, as his bravery had helped bring public safety risks to light. To honor Barnett’s life, NWC launched a letter-writing campaign, urging Congress to hold Boeing accountable by fully investigating and correcting the safety failures Barnett reported.

The campaign is still active, and NWC has certainly made an impact, collecting 4,000 letters through its form. The letters were sent to Congress and can reach President Biden.

Honoring Dr. Tommie “Toni” Savage

Dr. Tommie “Toni” Savage was a notable Supervisory Contracting Officer for the Army Corps of Engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, overseeing and awarding critical and high-profile Army contracts. Recognized by Huntsville’s Deputy Commander as a standout employee, Savage’s career was interrupted in 2006 after she exposed fraudulent activities in the Army’s Ranges Program. Despite her efforts to address these issues through the proper channels, her concerns were dismissed by Huntsville’s leadership, prompting an internal audit. This audit, along with subsequent Army investigations, validated Savage’s claims, attributing failure of action to the chief counsel and commander, though these findings were concealed, and no disciplinary actions were taken against those involved.

Instead, Savage faced significant retaliation, culminating in a settlement agreement that was quickly violated. Her promotion to Huntsville’s Small Business Chief was marred by continued and escalating retaliatory actions. The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) found that Savage was unjustly denied performance awards and subjected to diminished performance reviews, racist comments, and pervasive harassment. This hostile work environment led to severe physical reactions, preventing her from entering her workplace by 2009. Ultimately, her inability to physically attend work resulted in her termination on grounds of being absent without leave (AWOL) and her removal from federal service.

In 2015, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) issued a landmark decision in her case. Establishing what is known as the Savage Standard, it ruled that whistleblowers can seek protection under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act when they are subjected to a hostile work environment in retaliation for blowing the whistle. Remarkably, the administrative law judge handling the case failed to abide by the Board’s 2015 ruling and was decisively overruled a second time on Oct. 31, 2022.

In the new ruling, the MSPB determined that the Army constructively suspended Dr. Savage in 2009 and reversed the AWOL charge when the administrative judge, for a second time, failed to consider the entire record as previously directed.

Following the issuance of the MSPB decision in October 2022, the Corps and Dr. Savage were able to settle their remaining differences. Dr. Savage returned to federal service and retired from the Corps in 2023.

Dr. Savage was represented by Michael Kohn of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, LLP. He worked tirelessly in the successful adjudication of her case. NWC also supported Dr. Savage in her fight for justice.

In 2017, Dr. Savage spoke at NWC’s National Whistleblower Appreciation Day celebration. She is currently an advisory member of the National Whistleblower Day committee and a strong advocate for mental health awareness in whistleblower law. Dr. Savage is President and Founder of Daughter of Zion Ministries, Inc.

Etiquette When Discussing Suicide

What we say or don’t say, and how we say it, matters to those struggling with thoughts of ending their lives and to those suffering a loss due to suicide. Suggestions for how to address the issue are offered by CNN, which quoted a crisis intervention expert advocating for changing the phrase “committed suicide.”

“It implies sin or crime” –we “commit” sins and crimes — “and pathologizes those affected. We suggest more objective phrasing, like ‘died by/from suicide,’ ‘ended their life’ or ‘took their life,’” said Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide awareness activist. “If we’re using the right language, if we’re pulling negative connotations from the language, talking about suicide may be easier.”

Ultimately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that there is no single method that best prevents or reduces suicide. “Rather, suicide prevention is best achieved,” it stated in the technical package, “…across all sectors, private and public.”

Although society’s collective attention span is limited, considering the barrage of headlines emanating from media outlets and overall news fatigue, suicide — like drug use — is a public health concern. It is likely that more stories and facts will emerge in September during National Suicide Prevention Month, as well as the mindset of John Barnett, which will bring the topics into a mainstream dialogue again.

On the Need for Cultural Change

Harkening back to last week’s Sunday Read, Garrick is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of the connection between mental health, suicide, and whistleblowing, as she was appointed by the Obama Administration to the Department of Defense (DoD) to work in the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (P&R), where she organized the Defense Suicide Prevention Office in 2011.

NWC asked her about the importance of changing the culture around whistleblowing and mental health. She noted:

“Whistleblower mental health is an emerging field of study. Changing this culture is not only important to the employees caught in the mix; society as a whole must care about this issue. Anyone can be impacted by wrongdoing when they walk into a school, hospital, or bank. It can be anyone’s family.

With suicide as the fourth-leading cause of death among working-aged adults in America, the change in funding research, developing policies, and curriculums is the next horizon. I have proposed that there be an Office of the Whistleblower Protection Advocate under Justice that should operate similar to the Office for Victims of Crime.

If we understand the trauma of crime victims and the distress that can come from judicial proceedings within this population, we should see the similarities to whistleblowers who suffer retaliation, discrimination, and harassment. Studies have documented that the long-term effects of emotional abuse are worse than for physical assault, and yet mental health parity in victims is still a yardstick away.

Resources for Whistleblowers and Those Experiencing Mental Health Struggles

NWC has reported on this issue and will continue its coverage of mental health awareness again in 2024. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, contact NAMI or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

The decision to come forward is not one to be taken lightly, nor should selecting a whistleblower lawyer. NWC provides resources that can connect you with the right legal professional.

Support NWC

The NWC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and our awareness-building work is made possible with the support of our generous donors. Please consider donating $100 today to help us continue our important advocacy for whistleblowing and whistleblowers around the world. Donors of $100 or more will receive a copy of Rules for Whistleblowers: A Handbook for Doing What’s Right, written by NWC Chairman Stephen M. Kohn, Esq.

This story was written by Justin Smulison, a professional writer, podcaster, and event host based in New York.



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National Whistleblower Center is the leading nonprofit working with whistleblowers around the world to fight corruption and protect people and the environment.