An estimated 21% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Nearly two-thirds of these people do not seek treatment; some because of the stigma that is associated with mental health treatment, according to a separate report by the surgeon general. Stigma takes on new meaning when you add in the SF-86 and the need to obtain a security clearance or keep one as a part of military service or critical national security missions.

“The facts show that we are experiencing a global mental health crisis,” said Amy Gilliland, President, 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.”

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Destigmatizing mental health remains a push across the government and commercial sector. In the past year the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), and organizations across government have been working to retrain and provide messaging about mental health topics. GDIT also launched its ‘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.

The panel kicked off with data to demystify common myths about mental health and security clearances, including noting that in the 8-year span from 2012-2020 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.

“If you take nothing else away – it’s that having mental health concerns is not a reason for you to lose your clearance by itself, said Marianna Martineau, assistant director for adjudications, DCSA. “It is incredibly rare for that to happen.”

Another common question involves specific diagnosis and whether or not those will preclude the ability to obtain a security clearance. While Question 21 on the SF-86 does address specific mental health conditions, and security clearance holders are required to self-report those diagnosis, simply having a mental health condition that must be identified on the SF-86 does not mean those conditions preclude eligibility: There are no psychological conditions automatically resulting in clearance denial or revocation.

“There are individuals with a variety of conditions…they’re able to mitigate the concerns, usually through remission of symptoms or compliance with treatment,” said Dr. Michael Priester, chief psychologist, adjudications, Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA).

Stigma and Security Clearances

The confusion around mental health issues and security clearances isn’t created in a vacuum – it often stems around overall confusion about the security clearance process – which is intimidating with or without mental health as a factor.

“I think it stems from the overall atmosphere of going through the process of obtaining a security clearance and occupying a position of trust,” said Mark Frownfelter, assistant director, Special Security Directorate, National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC).¬† The security clearance process includes things like polygraphs, investigations, and the final adjudication process, noted Frownfelter. “There’s a lot of ambiguity about how that final decision is rendered.”

He noted ODNI and NCSC’s ongoing commitment to providing information, workforce training, and dispelling myths around treatment.

“We want to ease that stigma,” Frownfelter emphasized. “Stigma around mental health is prevalent in the IC, but I would argue this is an issue across the workforce and across our nation right now,” he noted. The silver lining may be the unique position the nation is today as it recovers from COVID-19.

“The good news is I think we’re in a unique place to address this,” said Frownfelter. “The pandemic opened our eyes to the mental health and well-being of our workplace.” In contrast to prior years, Frownfelter noted initiatives like excused absences for dependent care, remote work, and just increased flexibility overall toward the workforce and its needs – including those around mental health.

Military and Mental Health

In many ways, the push to make the security clearance process more favorable toward mental health came from the military. In an effort to increase opportunities for service members to get treatment for mental health issues and PTSD without being concerned about their security clearance status, the SF-86 was updated to remove the need to list proactive mental health treatment unrelated to specific psychiatric disorders.

“The military is widely realized that they have to message and react in different ways to destigmatize people seeking assistance,” said¬† retired Col. Kenneth McCreedy, director, Ft. Meade Alliance Board of Directors, and chair, Military and Family Committee. “The challenge is, people still internalize the stigma. In an effort to continue to spread the right messaging around mental health and destigmatize treatment, the military is promoting information about resilience.”

Just as the military focuses on the physical conditioning of the body, today’s emphasis on resilience includes pillars emphasizing the role of family, mental health, support, and holistic care. McCreedy emphasized the need for service members to get out of their heads, out of their dorms, and into spaces where they can connect, collaborate, and build mental health pillars to help them grow their career – and be a more resilient warrior.

The key takeaway from the conversation – mental health is critical to the health of the national security workforce. Making time for proactive mental health treatment is often key to getting the help that’s needed – and it’s not a barrier to a cleared career.

“From a security clearance adjudicative standpoint, we actually view treatment positively,” said Martineau.


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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