Security clearance experts encourage national security workers to seek mental health treatment

For the very small segment of security clearances denied based on mental health issues, it is often failure to seek treatment that was an issue in the denial.

For the very small segment of security clearances denied based on mental health issues, it is often failure to seek treatment that was an issue in the denial. MICROGEN IMAGES/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

The government and private sector are pushing to improve the narrative around mental health care.

There was a time when all counseling had to be listed on the SF-86 or self-reported to security officers. Concerns about whether or not reporting those issues would impact security clearance eligibility – and therefore put an end to a military or government career – caused many individuals to simply refuse to seek mental health treatment, despite issues caused by post-traumatic stress, marital issues, or even sexual assault.

After years of debate and a strong push by the military and intelligence community, in 2017 the SF-86 was updated to indicate that counseling did not need to be listed, just specific mental health conditions, hospitalizations, and other mental health topics directly related to reliability and trustworthiness. Despite that change to the SF-86, many in the national security community still see mental health issues through a pre-2016 lens, with concerns that counseling or mental health treatment could negatively impact their careers.

Years after the SF-86 update, the issue of educating the government and national security workforce about why mental health treatment is actually a positive step in security clearance eligibility remains. That concern comes as a growing segment of government and national security leaders are concerned that mental health may be the next epidemic negatively impacting their workforces. 

“The facts show that we are experiencing a global mental health crisis,” said Amy Gilliland, president of IT service management company GDIT, and moderator of a recent panel hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) about mental health and intelligence careers. “The intelligence community hasn’t been spared in these facts.”

One in five U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) pushed clarifying guidance in 2020 to ensure cleared professionals knew that seeking mental health treatment for COVID-19 related issues would not cost their security clearances. The reality is mental health – while an adjudicative guideline – rarely results in clearance denials and revocations. In the 8-year span from 2012 to 2020 just .00115% of all security clearance denials and revocations involved mental health, and even in those cases, no one was denied a clearance simply for receiving mental health treatment. 

Officials across ODNI, DCSA, and the private sector are all working to reduce stigma around mental health issues and encourage cleared workers to get mental health care and treatment, and to clarify that doing so is actually a mitigating factor in the security clearance process. The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), which conducts investigations across more than 95% of the cleared workforce and interfaces with more than 105 agencies, has emphasized that there are no psychological conditions automatically resulting in security clearance denial. The key factor the government looks at is if the individual is following through with treatment. 

“If there is a myth out there that, ‘if I go to behavioral health [services] it will be a career killer,’ … it’s to the contrary; we at adjudications very much see participating in treatment as a favorable thing,” said Michael Priester, the chief psychologist at DCSA.

For the very small segment of security clearances denied based on mental health issues, it is often failure to seek treatment that was an issue in the denial. Mental health issues are also often cross-populated with other significant adjudicative issues, such as alcohol abuse, criminal conduct, or personal conduct.

Working to Spread the Word

Both the government and private sector are pushing to improve the narrative around mental health. 

“Intelligence community employees, they deal with the same stressors that everyone is dealing with right now,” said Mark Frownfelter, assistant director for the Special Security Directorate (SSD) within the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “We have financial strains. We have work problems, family issues. And that will result in depression, anxiety…some turn to substances to help alleviate some of those illnesses or conditions. So it’s important that we dispel this myth about seeking support and seeking treatment, and how it could possibly negatively impact your clearance.”

Personnel security professionals across ODNI and DCSA emphasize the process is focused on behavior, not a specific diagnosis, and even though specific psychiatric conditions do currently need to be listed on the form, it is not because having those conditions will automatically result in clearance denial. What the government is concerned about is behavior. 

Priester emphasized that mental health practitioners involved in the security clearance process offer opinions on ‘behaviors of concern’ – but even those opinions are still considered through the government’s ‘whole person concept’ and left to the expertise of adjudicators. 

While the government looks to ensure cleared professionals don’t let stigma stop them from seeking mental health treatment, a growing number of government contractors are also working to ensure their workforces are getting the help and support they need. GDIT launched a ‘How are you, really?’ campaign to get to the heart of how its employees really are in a time of significant stress, societal pressures, and national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal government and private sector health plans typically include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) which include access to a certain number of free mental health sessions each year. But many companies and agencies find these to be an untapped benefit. In response to COVID-19, 39% of employers expanded their mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits survey. Despite increased access to mental health treatment, however, separate reports by the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) found that just 3.5% of employees take advantage of their EAP each year.

Frownfelter emphasized stigma may be one factor in keeping national security workers from seeking treatment, but EAP usage figures demonstrate it’s clearly not a problem unique to the IC.

“The good news is I think we’re in a unique place to address this,” Frownfelter said. “The pandemic opened our eyes to the mental health and well-being of our workplace.”

As companies and agencies look to support their workforces through proactive programs like dependent care, remote work, and flexible work hours, the conversation begins to pivot to how to seek help – and why that’s okay, including for workers supporting some of the government’s most sensitive missions. As GDIT’s program emphasizes – sometimes it’s OK not to be OK.

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site. 

NEXT STORY: Disability compensation may improve veterans’ health

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.