Mental health issues result in a relatively small number of security clearance denials and revocations, but are a frequent cause of questions, anxiety, and concern for security clearance holders and applicants.

ClearanceJobs discussed these issues with Dr. Scott Edwards, president and chief psychologist at ClearancePsych, a collaborative of psychologists who work to help individuals affected by psychological issues across the national security community, including clearance holders, the military, and government agencies. Edwards noted that since 2016, the mental health question has become a lot easier for security clearance applicants, clarifying just what information the government is looking for – and what it isn’t.

“The government tried to get smarter about the mental health question in 2008,” said Edwards. “Prior to 2016, the question asked if you’d ever been involved in some sort of mental health treatment.” He said that meant that everything from marriage counseling to a one-time visit to a psychologist for anxiety in college was listed on the form, and caused many individuals who were already cleared to avoid seeking proactive mental health treatment, because they were concerned of negative repercussions.

Edwards noted what the government is really looking for is mental health issues that may affect your reliability and trustworthiness, and that’s why it clarified the mental health question in 2016 to make it more targeted.

Misunderstandings and Mental Health Stigma

Stigma was at the heart of questions to Question 21, including the desire that veterans affected by Post Traumatic Stress wouldn’t be afraid to seek proactive mental health treatment. That effort was a key signal by the government that they wanted to work to address the issue of stigma – but it will take more than just updating a question for it to disappear.

“I’d say stigma is alive and well in our society,” said Edwards. “I do a lot of work with the military, it’s definitely alive in the military and government systems. And definitely for cleared populations there’s a lot of stigma for someone having mental health issues.”

He noted that it’s one of those societal issues that’s hard to ‘resolve.’ But many government agencies are trying – simply by taking the step of being up front and saying that they support their population going out and getting mental health treatment.

“It’s okay to get help, and we’re going to view that positively,” said Edwards.

It’s a small percentage of people with mental health problems who end up being ineligible for a security clearance.

the Line Between Honesty and Oversharing

One area of particular concern for security clearance applicants is the polygraph. Particularly the full scope polygraph, which is surrounded with enough stigma and anxiety of its own.

“If you just read those questions and answer them honestly you’ll be in pretty good shape. It doesn’t ask about ADHD, depression, anxiety, or things like that,” said Edwards.

ClearanceJobs has previously discussed the ‘guilt grabber’ phenomenon for security clearance applicants. With faced with the question as to whether or not there is something they haven’t disclosed in the process, some applicants will disclose information that isn’t at all relevant to the clearance process – or applicable. Officials with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have emphasized that in contrast to other countries – the U.S. is still governed by the Constitution. And a clearance holder gets to hold onto and maintain rights to privacy across a variety of areas that would be fair game somewhere else.

“The government doesn’t need to or get to know everything about us in the security clearance process,” said Edwards. “A good one from my experience is childhood sexual abuse. The person doesn’t need to know every detail, or every mistake you’ve made – volunteering all of that information is not wise – psychologically speaking, which is my realm – or required. There are a lot of things you can keep to yourself.”

The issue isn’t just the relevance of those kinds of personal details that may be revealed, but the accuracy.

“If you’re confessing some kind of behavior to a polygraph investigator for a first time, that you’ve never told anyone else, that data is going to be highly suspect – there is going to be fear, there’s going to be shame,” said Edwards. Intense emotional experiences – particularly those from the distant past, bring up issues with misinformation.

For security clearance holders or applicants, whether it’s a basic application or the polygraph process, anxiety is the enemy. Getting help from a mental health professional isn’t always about mitigating negative past issues, said Edwards. He noted things like developing purpose, creating a life mission statement, and other proactive activities that can help reduce anxiety and create not just a better path to a national security career – but a more fulfilling life.


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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer