Everyone is nervous about applying for their first security clearance. “They’re nervous because it’s their first time,” says Rachel McCaffrey, a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force. “They’re nervous because their career may hinge upon their ability to get a clearance.” So for those with an eating disorder—or a past diagnosis—nerves may run especially high. An eating disorder is considered a mental health issue, and, as McCaffrey points out, “much has been written about the potential negative impact of mental health issues on obtaining … clearance.” 

What to check on the Clearance Application with An Eating Disorder

On the SF-86—the questionnaire all security clearance applicants fill out before an investigation—Section 21C asks, “Have you EVER been hospitalized for a mental health condition?” If you’ve been diagnosed with an eating disorder in the past that has required hospitalization, you’ll need to answer “yes,” says R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of The Employment Law Group, P.C.

Understand the Purpose of the Security Clearance Process to Help Answer Questions

Oswald says his clients regularly express their concern over this question, worried that if they check “yes” their clearance will immediately and irrevocably be denied. And while it seems like an incredibly personal—perhaps too personal—question, McCaffrey says it’s a relevant one.

“The sole purpose of the security clearance process,” McCaffrey says, “is to reduce the risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” adding that, “unauthorized disclosure can happen because of spies or carelessness or instability—which is why mental illness is relevant.” 

Oswald and McCaffrey both agree honesty is the best policy. “The most important piece of advice I give to anyone going through a security clearance investigation is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” says McCaffrey. “If you have to lie or omit information during the process, you are not a person who should be handling classified information.” 

Treatment Can Help Your Case

The good news is, if you are seeking or did seek (and complete) treatment—and your treating healthcare professional is willing to attest that you followed his or her prescribed plan—and you are otherwise not in good mental health, “that is going to be enough in most cases,” Oswald says. 

In other words: You shouldn’t be denied clearance. 

Once you check “yes” and admit you’ve received an eating order diagnosis and been hospitalized, an investigator will ask you if you are in or were in treatment; he or she will ask who you sought treatment from; and he will ask you to sign a HIPPA waiver, so that he can speak with your healthcare professional, says Oswald. You won’t be asked details to share about your diagnosis or condition, he says. If your condition has never resulted in hospitalization, you don’t even need to list it on your form. That said, if you’re concerned references or other individuals may mention it during the course of the investigation, it’s likely better to be up front with the issue in either your SF-86 or any personnel subject interview required.

Oswald says that he’s seen cases where security clearance is granted with conditions; for example, you may have to continue treatment, and have your healthcare professional attest at certain intervals that you are continuing that treatment and following his or her guidance. 

Speaking to Family and Friends Might be an Option

While unlikely, the investigator may speak to your friends and family about your condition. If your diagnosis is something you have chosen not to share with them, McCaffrey recommends telling the investigator you’ve kept your diagnosis private. “It’s one thing if your neighbors and some classmates don’t know about it,” she says. “But if you have this kind of illness, like if you had cancer, you’d expect family and close friends to know about it and … to be helping with it.”

Never Lie About Your Eating Disorder

And what if you choose to lie about your eating disorder? If you lie about any hospitalizations or mental health diagnosis associated with your disorder, and the investigator learns of your diagnosis through interviews or otherwise, “you will have lied during the investigation and that will likely disqualify you from getting a clearance,” McCaffrey says. 

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Jillian Kramer is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and many more.