Clearances and mental healthcare
The issue of mental health and security clearance is complex, so it’s impossible to explore every possible scenario, but it’s important to clear up some common misconceptions about the clearance investigation process.
Mind - Mental Health
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Here are some basics to start with. The existence of a psychological diagnosis or disorder will not automatically disqualify you from getting or retaining a security clearance. Almost no one has lost a clearance for having a behavioral health diagnosis. Of those who have lost
clearance, only 0.04% did so for solely psychological reasons.
What’s more, the simple act of
meeting with a mental health professional or obtaining mental health care will not automatically result in a loss of clearance. And an affirmative answer to question 21 on the SF86 will not automatically disqualify you from gaining or retaining an active clearance.
However, it’s much more complex than that, so we’ll try to tease some of it apart, judgment matters. The real factors that heavily influence clearance status are whether an individual is trustworthy, dependable, reliable, and shows good judgment.
Indeed, the vast majority of revoked or denied clearances occur because the applicant demonstrated a history of poor
judgment and questionable decision-making. Infractions such as running up a credit card,
getting numerous speeding tickets, or drinking and driving negatively impact clearance status
much more commonly.
The clearest disqualifier is active involvement with illegal drugs,
including medical marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level. Drug use and risky
behavior, for example, are symptoms of more serious underlying psychological issues that can
indeed impact clearance status. Many people incorrectly attribute negative clearance status ton
the simple act of seeking help instead of poor judgment and behavior.
Seeking help when you face a problem—including a mental health problem—actually
demonstrates trustworthiness, dependability, reliability, and good judgment—the very factors
being vetted for a security clearance. Being forthcoming about what you experienced and how
you dealt with it by obtaining help from a mental health professional shows mental clarity and
There is also a commonly held belief that answering “yes” to question 21 on the SF86 puts
you at risk for losing your clearance. Question 21 (Q21) on the SF86 asks, “In the last 7 years,
have you consulted with a healthcare professional regarding an emotional or mental health
condition or were you hospitalized for such a condition?”.
Obtaining any type of mental health
or psychological care, court-ordered or not, should result in a “yes” answer to this question except if the psychological health counseling was strictly for:
Grief, marital, or family concerns not related to violence by you.
Adjustments from service in a military combat zone.
Being a victim of sexual assault.
Every application for a clearance is reviewed individually, and your response to each question
will be taken within the overall context of your personal and professional history. Perhaps you
can demonstrate that your diagnosis was mitigated by the mental health treatment you
received. This shows good judgment, execution of strategies for improvement, and a better
health outcome because of the steps you took.
Any adjudication process considers a
psychological diagnosis to assess the extent to which the diagnosed condition impairs the
applicant’s judgment. There are some profoundly rare instances where operational and
security judgment is clearly impaired due to psychological struggles, such as when a person is
hallucinating or markedly disconnected from reality.
It is critical to be honest in your response to Q21. If you respond “no” to Q21, but interviews
conducted through the clearance process suggest otherwise, further inquiry will ensue. If you respond “yes” to Q21, an investigator will contact the mental health professional you
worked with. The investigator will assess the professional’s level of concern with your mental
health status. If this professional reports no concern for a defect in your judgment as it relates
to maintaining the security of sensitive information, the inquiry into Q21 will end, and the
investigator will proceed to review the rest of your application.
The biggest risk you could possibly face in answering “yes” to Q21 is if your mental health
professional reports continued concern about your mental health status, stability, and
judgment. Perhaps you discontinued sessions against medical advice or without consulting the
professional you worked with. Then the adjudicators might ask you to complete a psychiatric
evaluation. The adjudicators want to make a good judgment call on your abilities to maintain
national security secrets. Psychiatric evaluation is rarely requested, but asking an applicant to
complete one gives them the information needed to make a decision.
Lying in response to Q21 or other questions displays bad judgment. It also can reflect on your
trustworthiness, dependability, and reliability—factors that definitely do impact your
clearance status. “Honesty is the best policy” when responding to Q21. You will have a
chance to clarify if you answer “yes,” but if you lie and get caught, you are at greater risk of
damaging your clearance status.
Special Operations Forces are the elite among Warfighters and are expected to have the
tactical skills and stamina required to perform at consistently high levels in stressful
environments. Operators are disciplined in maintaining the mental and physical strength
required to be at their best at all times. However, even the strongest have moments in life that
might require them to call for support.
When you’re struggling, it takes courage to admit it
and seek help. Doing so means you’re strong; it means you have good judgment. Calling for support means that you can stay strong and be prepared for your teammates and for your
family, both of whom depend on you to stay on top of your game.
Obtaining mental health care when you need it demonstrates good judgment that can be
favorably evaluated during a security clearance investigation. All Operators need
maintenance, from time to time, of their physical and psychological health. Don’t let simple
misconceptions about a complex process stand in the way of calling for mental health support.
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