In November 2016 the U.S. government released a revised version of Standard Form (SF) 86, the security clearance background investigation questionnaire. That revision, still in effect today, was most notable for its dramatic overhaul of the section covering an applicant’s mental health history. Although four years have since transpired, many current clearance holders are just now seeing the form for the first time as part of a five-year (Top Secret) or ten-year (Secret) periodic review. Their reactions range from nonplussed to bewilderment and depend largely on whether an applicant previously responded in the affirmative to any mental health questions on prior SF-86’s.

Assuming an affirmative response was previously required, chances are good that it was to a then-existing question about whether or not the applicant had consulted with or been treated by a mental health practitioner within the last seven years. That broad question, which struck needless fear in the heart of many applicants, is now gone – replaced with a series of far more narrowly tailored inquiries.

For example, the new form asks whether the applicant has been diagnosed with any one of a series of specifically-enumerated mental health conditions; has been hospitalized for mental health treatment or evaluation; has been declared mentally incompetent by a court or administrative agency or ordered to consult with a mental health practitioner; has been non-compliant with medical (mental health) advice; or, is currently in mental health treatment.

Interestingly, the form also asks the applicant to indicate whether or not s/he has a mental health condition that could substantially adversely affect their judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness – even if s/he is not experiencing symptoms of that condition today. This is a somewhat subjective question, and the worst thing an applicant can do is speculate. Doing so is often an exercise if self-sabotage.

Instead, the best thing an applicant with questions about his or her mental health history can do is to take the pertinent pages of the SF-86 to his or her medical provider and ask them for help in completing the form. There is a strategic reason for doing this beyond just ensuring the questions are answered correctly. The mental health practitioner will be contacted by background investigators in the event of any affirmative answer to Section 21; an unfavorable professional opinion or a guarded one – which is common, even if unwarranted, in today’s litigious society – can tank an otherwise successful application. By putting one’s mental health practitioner on notice now regarding the narrow scope of the government’s concerns it is helping the medical provider better understand the nature of a later inquiry and be more comfortable providing the favorable diagnosis necessary for success.

The revisions to the SF-86 were designed to decrease applicant anxiety over the mental health questions and encourage those working in the national security sector who need mental health treatment to get it. Ironically though, the changes to the form themselves are giving some long-time national security professionals serious anxiety. If this sounds like you, understand that only a miniscule percentage of people with mental health conditions are found unfit to hold a security clearance, and that failing to seek needed treatment or comply with medical advice is often viewed as a far more significant concern. Also keep in mind that the government knows that the form is different now than it was the last time around. Applicants need not (and should not) over-volunteer information not specifically requested unless advised by qualified legal counsel or a mental health professional to the contrary.


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