Questions and Myths About Mental Health and Security Clearances

By Jayson Blair

With our practice being the Washington, D.C. area, we often get questions from people who hold or applying for sensitive government positions. They are often concerned about the impact of their treatment for mental health problems on their security clearances. Many fear seeking help will cause their clearance to be denied or revoked. Others worry that sensitive private information about their treatment will be disclosed.

Despite the worries, the reality is that mental health problems rarely impact security clearances. That’s unless the person is not in treatment or following providers’ recommendations. We have clients who hold clearances from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial Space Agency and dozens of similar agencies.  Among these people are those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions. Several of them have access to Sensitive Compartmented Information, known as SCI,  and Special Access Programs.

Yet several myths persist.

Myth: People diagnosed with mental illnesses are not eligible for security clearances.

Of all of my clients with mental illnesses who applied for or had a review of their security clearance, only one client has been denied.  The clientwas not denied because of his mental health condition per se – but he was, however, denied for some poor financial choices that I’d attribute to his mental disorder. As a psychiatrist I know once put it, “Out of the hundreds of clients I’ve had who have had [or applied for] security clearances, only one has been denied and it was his behavior, not his condition that caused the problem.”

Answering honestly about mental health issues can delay background investigations, but the facts are that less than 1 percent of the 800,000 people who applied for a security clearance in 2006 were denied due to their mental health status. Of the 150,000 security clearance applications processed in 2009 by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office, which handles clearances for contractors, only 5 applicants were denied clearances due to psychological conditions. A July 2009 article written on the Army website reported that that 99.98 percentof applicants who have psychological problems obtain their clearances. This fact doesn’t just told for the military.

The process generally goes like this: A client acknowledges their mental health condition  or counseling history on a background investigation form. The agency asks for the names of treatment providers. Generally, a questionnaire soon arrives at our office.
The questions are, by and large, some version of:

Does the individual have a condition that could impair his or her judgment, reliability or ability to properly safeguard classified national security information?

If so, describe the nature of the condition and the extend and duration of the impairment or treatment.”

What is the prognosis?

If the answer to the first question is no, that’s usually the end of it. If the answer is yes, we usually are asked to provide a narrative about the client’s prognosis and compliance with treatment. My colleagues and I cannot remember a time when we were asked for our entire client file.

Myth: Getting care will hurt my career.

An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans suffer from diagnosable mental disorders in a given year. Nearly two-thirds of these people do no seek treatment; some because of the stigma that is associated with mental health treatment and others because of a fear that their mental health issues could adversely affect their eligibility for a security clearances. Much of this worry is unnecessary and often the choice not to seek clearance will have a more negative impact. In fact, where my clients run into trouble the most is when they do not get care for mental health problems or they do not comply with the treatment recommendations of their psychiatrists and other mental health providers. One client at a government contractor was forced by his agency to seek and comply with treatment or be dismissed.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent out a memo to all State Department employees in September 2010 urging employees in need of mental health treatment to get it, stating that no foreign service officer had ever lost a security clearance due to having sought mental health treatment. Clinton called seeking help a sign of “maturity and professionalism.”

Seeking mental health often strengthens and protects a client’s career by minimizing the negative impact of symptoms on their performance. Failure to seek care not only hurts their health, but increases the likelihood of adverse events, such as making mistakes, being late and having memory and other problems.

Myth: Some government agencies may allow people with mental health conditions to apply or stay in their jobs, but especially sensitive ones, like the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, would not

The fact is that the CIA and other similarly sensitive agencies have devoted significant resources to mental health, getting plugged in with local mental health practitioners and in helping their employees and contractors. They recognize the unique demands of the work within their agencies – the secrecy, the hours, the difficult work environments and other factors – can be more susceptible to mental health problems.

“CIA psychologists are prepared to assist in the prevention and remediation of mental health problems wherever they occur,” Terrence W. DeMay the chief of the mental health division of the Office of Medical Services at the CIA, told the American Psychological Association in an interview.

 “Agency employees are not immune to psychological disorders, however, and in some cases are at greater-than-average risk because of the unique stressor they are asked to endure routinely,”  he continued.
Even the CIA is interested in only the behaviors that threaten national security. This means that compliance with treatment is better than non-compliance or no treatment at all.

Myth:  I must report if I am suffering PTSD, or seeking counseling due to a sexual assault or marriage problems and this could negatively affect my clearance.

“Seeking professional care for these mental health issues should not be perceived tojeopardize an individual’s security clearance,” David S. Chu, the secretary ofdefense for personnel and readiness, and James R. Clapper Jr., theundersecretary of defense for intelligence, wrote at the time.  “On the contrary, failure to seek care actually increases the likelihood that psychological stress could escalate to a more serious mental condition, which could preclude an individual from performing sensitive duties.”

Many government agencies allow applicants to answer “no” with regards to marriage counseling and the DoD is pushing through measures that would also allow victims of sexual assault who seek care to answer “no.”  Getting treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is not a threat to an individual’s security clearance. In 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered that the DoD security clearance form be revised to allow individuals to answer “no” to the mental health counseling question if their care “was strictly related toadjustments from service in a military combat environment.”

Myth: Psychiatric hospitalization is always an event that I would have to report.

The general rule of thumb is that anything that changes between the point that you fill out your Questionare for National Security Positions – known as Standard Form 86 or the SF 86 – is should be reported to your security officer. Hospitalizations, in general, would have to be reported on the form or afterwards when an administrative body or a government agency declares a person incomponent. A voluntary choice to go to the hospital would not reach that level, but an involuntary admission would or a magistrate ordering that a person to be held involuntarily after going in voluntarily would  qualify. A person who undergoes mental health counseling in the hospital — not always assured to happen these days — would have to report the new treatment provider. Once again, it comes down on the side of following treatment recommendations. 

Seek Treatment Without Fear

The reality is that there is very little to fear in acknowledging and getting treatment for mental health conditions. If there is anything I’ve learned in my experience in working with people who have security clearances, there is much to worry about if you don’t.

Jayson Blair is a certified life coach at Goose Creek Consulting. He can be reached by clicking here.

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