Information abounds on the internet about the extent to which mental health concerns impact security clearances. Some of that information is accurate; some is patently false. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to discern the fine line between the two. As a result, some security clearance holders make a conscious decision to avoid seeking out the treatment they desperately need for fear of an impact on their career. If this sounds like you, first understand three things:

(1) Very few security clearance cases involving mental health concerns ever rise to the level of a preliminary denial;

(2) Of those few cases, many are still winnable (albeit with some time and expense);

(3) Your career and your health are inextricably bound together. If the latter falters, so often does the former.

Seeking Help Doesn’t Mean You’re “Crazy” – it Means You’re Smart.

The problem of avoidance is especially acute for veterans, who often cringe at the unfortunate stigma associated with “talking to someone” about their problems. Many veterans who call my office prefer instead to “self-medicate” their mental health problems with substances like alcohol and marijuana.* That is a very bad idea.

“Self-medicating” with alcohol or drugs doesn’t treat the underlying condition – it only dulls it temporarily. Allow enough time to transpire and the situation inevitably becomes worse. Ironically, it also raises new security concerns about substance abuse and your judgment that may not otherwise have existed. It is dramatically more difficult to defend a security clearance applicant who won’t acknowledge he or she needs help than it is to defend someone who is serious about treatment. After all, one of the underlying themes in all security clearance adjudications is personal responsibility. If the government doesn’t believe you can be trusted to take care of yourself, why should they believe you can be entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive secrets?

Have An Open Conversation With Your Practitioner

Even those clearance holders who are smart enough to seek treatment still often have questions – frequently some variant of “but what if my doctor / therapist / counselor tells my background investigator I have ‘issues?’” There is a very easy solution to the speculation: ask. That’s right, have a candid conversation with your practitioner about whether he or she feels comfortable proffering a professional opinion to background investigators that you can be relied upon to protect classified information. Ask for your diagnosis. Ask if your practitioner feels that you are compliant with your treatment plan. And ask the prognosis for future recovery. These are the typical questions the government will want answered. You can relieve quite a bit of unnecessary heartburn by obtaining the answers first.

The bottom line is this: if you need help, go get it. In most cases, your security clearance and your job will not suffer any adverse impacts. For the few cases where security clearance problems do arise, they can often be effectively addressed with professional assistance. And where they can’t, ask yourself which is more important in the long-run: your health or your security clearance?

*The SF-86 Form explicitly allows applicants to exclude any mental health counseling or treatment strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at