Whistleblower: John Barnett’s Life and Death Highlight the Impact of Whistleblowing on Mental Health

By Anika Collier Navaroli

Last month, when a friend sent me a link to an article announcing that John Barnett had been found dead of an apparent suicide, my heart sunk. 

Like many people, Barnett had captured my attention as a “Boeing whistleblower” in the Netflix documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing. Unlike many people, when the documentary was released, I was secretly blowing the whistle. 

In early 2022 I was wracked with guilt. I had been speaking with the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack about my former role as a senior policy official at Twitter. I recounted my warnings that went unheeded that violence was going to occur on January 6. 

Numerous times government officials asked me what I thought might have happened if Twitter’s leadership had listened to me. Would people still have died? The question haunted both my daytime and my dreams. 

Then I saw Barnett’s face on my television. I watched the way it warped with agony when he discussed Boeing’s infamous and deadly 737 Max crashes that occurred after his warnings. His expressions weathered the weight of an impossible burden, one that wasn’t his to bear. 

I hit pause and began to weep. “It’s not your fault,” I whispered to the still image of Barnett that emblazoned the screen. “You did everything within your power that you could do.” 

But those weren’t just my words. They were the same words my therapist repeated to me each time I returned to her proverbial couch. And looking at Barnett’s face as a mirror, it finally clicked. If I believed it for him, then I had to believe it for myself. 

Barnett’s life made evident the volatile mental health toll that the journey and role as a public whistleblower takes. His death also highlights the need for more financial, operational, and professional resources for those who walk that path. 

When I first came forward publicly, I described my experience whistleblowing as “one of the most isolating times of my life.” Being thrust into the public spotlight also brought intense scrutiny and threats that forced me further into isolation. While the details of my case may be unique, I am not alone in the experience. In fact, the theme of isolation was recently echoed as a major cause for concern at a whistleblower convening at Harvard University. 

That isolation, as I recently said, can lead to psychological impacts. Shortly after I made friends with another Big Tech whistleblower, I worked up the courage to ask them if they also experienced depression after blowing the whistle. The answer to that question has continued to be a resounding “yes” as I’ve intentionally met other whistleblowers and conducted my own non-scientific polls of whistleblowing’s side effects. Weight loss, weight gain, and gastrointestinal issues have also been a part of both my journey and others. Barnett’s brother said that before his death, he suffered from PTSD and anxiety attacks. 

And while I’d hoped to bury it with the darkness of the past, Barnett’s death beckons me to talk about the time I felt compelled to Google “suicide rates in whistleblowers.” Now, the search results for the query are filled with articles about Barnett’s passing. But back then, the top results revealed that in a poll of 100 whistleblowers, 50% said they had thoughts of suicide. The results also said that suicidal ideations were common in NHS whistleblowers with 85% reporting “severe anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity and distrust, agoraphobia symptoms, and/or sleeping problems.” Surprisingly, reading that data, like watching the documentary featuring Barnett, made me feel calmer knowing that the sentiments coursing through my brain came along with the territory. 

I thought about Barnett again in February when I read headlines about Boeing’s continued safety failures. I hoped that he had found peace that couldn’t be deterred by the news. In reality, he was still embroiled in a lawsuit with Boeing that began in 2017 and alleged he had been retaliated against and forced into early retirement for blowing the whistle. 

Publicly telling the truth shouldn’t come with such high stakes nor should it require taking such immense risk. In honor of the impact Barnett has had on my journey, I’d like to offer three recommendations for how whistleblowing support organizations, philanthropic organizations, and the public can better support the mental health of whistleblowers in the future. 

First, whistleblowers need greater mental health resources. Therapy is expensive. Good therapists, who are informed in trauma techniques, are rare and even more expensive. Whistleblowers will also need to see them pretty often, over a long period of time. The bill adds up. We need financial support to build a trusted network of providers and to issue stipends to offset the costs of healing. 

Second, whistleblowers need help intentionally building community in order to stave off isolation and depression. I’ve often joked that someone needs to create a Whistleblowers Anonymous-style group. And, after helping coordinate a small dinner for truth-tellers, I know from experience how rejuvenating and life-giving that kind of fellowship can be. We need operational support to create a community on a larger, sustainable scale. 

Third, whistleblowers need alternative career pathways so that the act of blowing the whistle doesn’t derail our lives. Whistleblowing changes your identity and becomes a moniker you can never escape, as even in death, Barnett was identified in headlines simply as a “Boeing whistleblower.” Blowing the whistle should not mean that a person’s career and life become forever stuck in amber. We need professional support with coaching and guiding whistleblowers into viable post-whistleblowing careers. 

Whistleblowers play an important accountability role in society. Our disclosures have revealed widespread government surveillance and discriminatory practices, and shown how companies exploit violence for profit. Barnett’s case also clearly shows the value in individuals coming forward, especially in instances of concerns about public safety. Imagine how many lives could have been spared and crises avoided if Boeing had listened to Barnett’s internal warnings. 

While whistleblowing publicly may continue to be a life-altering event, it shouldn’t be a life-ending one. I hope that Barnett’s life and death are a siren call to all who care about the truth. We need greater mental health support for the brave people who dare to blow the whistle and shed light on the world around us. 

Anika Collier Navaroli is currently a Senior Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a Public Voices Fellow on Technology in the Public Interest with The Oped Project. She previously held senior policy official positions at Twitter and Twitch. In 2022, she blew the whistle about her warnings to Twitter that went unheeded leading to the January 6th attack on the Capitol and the platform’s ultimate decision to suspend former President Donald Trump.