Royal Navy officer caught on tape: “no such thing as mental health”

A shock recording of a Commander in the Royal Navy teasing a colleague suffering with a mental health condition and forcing them into tears has recently emerged for what is a huge embarrassment for the Royal Navy.

Cdr Vartan was awarded an OBE in 2017

The recording of a meeting that took place in 2017 between Cdr Mark Vartan OBE and one of his junior colleagues who had then been recently diagnosed with PTSD forms the key piece of evidence in the case against him.

Cdr Vartan who was fully aware of the victim’s condition and that they had been prescribed anti-depressants, while also undergoing treatment at the Department Community Mental Health (DCMH) says at one point:

“There’s no such thing as ‘mental-health.’ I come from a medical background, my father was a GP. This didn’t use to be a real thing. People just ‘got on with it’. It’s only recently become an excuse people feel they can use. Do you know how much money the Navy are wasting on you?”

The victim bursts into tears and says: “I’m sorry… I don’t mean to be a burden”.

Cdr Vartan replies: “Yes, well that is exactly what you are. I have enough on my plate as it is without having to deal with you as well.”

The victim who is clearly in distress asks if the meeting could be stopped but Cdr Vartan replies: “I don’t care if you want to stop! I want to continue. You need to hear this. For God’s sake stop crying.”

Lt Rachel Campbell, who was also present at the meeting, is heard laughing in the background and comments at one point: “…he’s ridiculous isn’t he Sir?”.

Lt Rachel Campbell on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth with the former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, before he was forced to resign after facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour himself.

The meeting lasted over an hour and only ended when Cdr Vartan offered the victim a glass of water as they began to have a panic attack.

The victim had an emergency consultation with the Royal Navy’s on duty mental health nurse who described them as someone who had: “clearly suffered a severe panic attack and was emotionally very distressed” – they were also later signed off work for the rest of the week.

Cdr Vartan who works as the Chief of Staff for Commodore Simon Huntington was awarded an OBE in 2016 for his time as the commanding officer of HMS Enterprise.

When asked why the victim had made the recording they said: “I started to carry a Dictaphone around so I could record my thoughts and play them back later, this made me help make sense of my emotions and the flashbacks I was having. It was recommended to me as a technique to help calm myself down. I hadn’t even realised I had made the recording until about a week later. At first, I was going to take it straight to my chain of command as proof of what happened. But after I had initially informed my Commanding Officer of the incident I was encouraged to drop it and Cdr Vartan was being defended before anyone had even heard what had happened.”

“I recorded every meeting I had after that point which clearly shows the culture in the Navy is to protect its senior officers, regardless of the truth and sweep incidents under the carpet. There is no sense of right or wrong or any interest in what really happened.”

The victim did end up lodging a service complaint against Cdr Vartan and one of the officers tasked with mediating the dispute between the two individuals, Cdr Heather Rimmer, can be heard in one of the recordings telling the victim… “I think we’re done here.  I have to warn you taking this any further could have severe consequences for you.”

When asked what she meant by this the victim said: “I think she was talking about my career. Lodging a complaint is effectively career suicide. While they’d never admit that officially, you just wouldn’t get any good jobs, and would be ‘punished’ as you are not seen as loyal.”

“But I would be being dis-loyal to everyone in the Navy if I didn’t report his behaviour – as it is only a matter of time before he treated someone like that again and during training we are also told about displaying moral courage.”

“The Navy can’t have it both ways. You can’t be an organisation that says it focuses on excellence and continuously trying to improve, while at the same time not be interested in investigating potential wrong doings or abuse of power by its senior staff.” 

Cdr Vartan did agree to attend an insight brief run by one of the Royal Navy’s psychologists at HMS Nelson, where he works in Portsmouth, to gain a better understanding of mental health. This was as part of the complaints procedure against him.

The solicitor representing the victim said: “While all Armed Forces personal are exempt from Employment legislation that protects civilian employees from this type of behaviour that many may take for granted in the work place, its personnel are not exempt from The Harassment Act which is a separate piece of legislation.”

“Normally a lack of evidence is unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt that such an event took place, which might be why the Navy did nothing about it; we have no evidence they conducted an investigation into the allegation. But a very clear recording of Cdr Vartan speaking to the victim, that has already been positively identified by a number of his former and present colleagues, means the proceedings are relatively straightforward for us. Although we of course respect his right to defend himself and justify his views.”

“While the case brought against him is a Civil matter and outside the Navy’s jurisdiction, the fact that he later denied saying any of the things he did to my client in writing and in face-to-face meetings (which are also recorded) is grounds for an offence itself, and he might face separate charges by the Navy as integrity and judgment are vital components of their senior management as well as key to the ethos of the organisation.”

“The Ministry of Defence (MoD) are only legally bound to match the verdict a civilian court imposes, but this could lead to Cdr Vartan receiving a severe reprimand and forfeiture of seniority to the most extreme form of punishment which would be a dishonourable discharge.”

“People are fallible and organisations are full of people, therefore from time to time errors in management will happen. But you cannot improve and learn from your mistakes if you invest time and energy in covering them up. We have spent time interviewing dozens of key witnesses to build up a profile of Cdr Vartan and the culture within the branch of the Navy he works in – called Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) that sits under the command of Rear-Admiral William J. Warrender.”

“Our message is clear, we believe actions have consequences and that those in the military, particularly its senior officers who should be setting an example, are not exempt from the consequences of their actions. In our country no one is above the law, and we hope to set a precedent in reminding those in the military that this also includes them.”

The victim has hoped that my bringing this case into the public domain they will highlight the growing culture of bullying in the Royal Navy and sense of unaccountability by most of its officers.

“What disappointed me the most is not that he didn’t realise what he was doing but the fact he later then tried to cover it up.”

“There’s no excuse for that, it’s the ultimate action of a coward.”

“He has never once apologised to me and was adamant that mental illness is a sign of weakness.”

A Royal Navy spokesman said: “We can confirm an investigation is under way into the allegations made about Cdr Vartan, but it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”