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How Receiving Psychological Health Care Impacts Your Security Clearance


If you're a service member, civilian employee or contractor, the Department of Defense wants you to understand that getting help for a psychological health issue is a sign of strength. Instead of harming your career, taking positive steps to deal with a problem can have a favorable impact as evidence of good judgment, responsible behavior and commitment to peak performance. To reinforce this position, the DoD has taken explicit actions to eliminate negative stereotypes about psychological health problems and false perceptions about the impact of treatment or counseling on careers within the DoD.

One of these perceptions is that getting help for a psychological health issue will result in denial or revocation of a security clearance. Many service members, DoD civilians and contractors continue to avoid needed care due to this unfounded fear. But actually, untreated psychological health issues have too often led to the types of behaviors that do end careers, including suicide.

Questionnaire for National Security Positions

Information on the Questionnaire for National Security Positions, Standard Form 86, is used by the DoD to conduct background checks and evaluations of personnel requiring access to classified information. In recent years, changes have been made to the form to protect applicants' privacy and ensure that negative inferences will not be made on the basis of getting treatment or counseling for a psychological health issue. But many service members are unaware of the changes, or they lack confidence that the changes will protect them. Here are the facts about psychological heath information requested on the SF-86:

  • Question 21 asks, "In the last seven years, have you consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition, or were you hospitalized for such a condition?"
  • Applicants are instructed on the form to answer "no" if they received counseling strictly related to marital, family or grief issues that was not court ordered and not related to violence by the applicant, or their counseling was strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment. These exclusions were added to the questionnaire following a 2008 study of the reason many service members avoid getting help when they have psychological concerns or relationship problems.
  • Applicants who are victims of sexual assault are also instructed to answer "no" if they received counseling in relation to their trauma. This exclusion was added to Question 21 in 2013 as interim guidance by the Director of National Intelligence until formal revision of the questionnaire is completed. This change is the result of advocacy by the DoD and other agencies or groups concerned that many victims of sexual assault were not getting counseling due to fear of losing security clearances.

Follow-up on a "yes" to Question 21

These DoD policies protect applicants' privacy rights and limit the information that can be obtained about the psychological health care of those who answer "yes" to Question 21:

  • The medical information release form signed by the applicant permits a security investigator to ask the applicant's care provider to give a "yes" or "no" answer to the question, "Does the person under investigation have a condition that could impair his or her judgment, reliability or ability to properly safeguard classified information?"
  • When the provider's answer is "no," the investigator is not allowed to ask further questions.
  • When the provider's answer is "yes," a credentialed security investigator may interview the provider and the applicant confidentially to gather additional information necessary for a security risk determination.
  • Commanders, supervisors and security managers are not authorized to ask an applicant or anyone else about psychological health care revealed in response to Question 21.
  • An applicant cannot be denied an interim security clearance solely due to a "yes" to Question 21.
  • Applicants may report any unauthorized questioning about psychological health care to the DoD Inspector General Hotline at 800-424-9098.

If your answer to Question 21 is "yes," keep in mind that less than 1 percent of all security clearance denials and revocations are for cases involving mental health issues.

Reaching out for help

Having a security clearance is a duty requirement for the majority of service members and many DoD civilians and contractors, including some who are struggling with psychological health issues. If you're among those who could benefit from counseling but are concerned about how it might affect your security clearance, consider your situation from a national security perspective.

If you allow your psychological health issues to go untreated or unaddressed, you may develop more serious problems that could affect your judgment and reliability. This could make it more difficult to perform the duties that require you to have a clearance. By contrast, taking action to resolve your issues may enhance your performance by freeing you to focus on the mission instead of your problems.

If you're ready to seek help for any type of psychological or interpersonal issue, you have a number of possible counseling options. A Military OneSource consultant (800-342-9647) can work with you to identify the kind of help you may need and put you in touch with the right services.


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