Applying for or renewing a security clearance can be an anxiety-inducing process for anyone. It is a whole lot more so for the 15% of U.S. adults already suffering from anxiety.[1]

Fifteen percent may seem like a large number, until one considers that the CDC says more than 18% of U.S. adults suffer from depression.[2] This makes anxiety and depression the two most common mental health disorders, and, not coincidentally, common concerns for security clearance applicants.

These concerns are understandable; after all, the SF-86 (or soon-to-be “PVQ”) does ask about an applicant’s mental health history. Yet before any applicant allows fear of denial to talk them out of applying, here are a few things to consider.

First, the government is aware of the prevalence of these mental health conditions and that, in the vast majority of cases, they have no impact on an individual’s reliability, integrity, or judgment. These are the three primary considerations in security clearance adjudications. When there is no evidence to suggest a defect in one of these areas, common mental health conditions like mild to moderate anxiety and depression are largely irrelevant as security issues.

Precisely because anxiety and depression are often irrelevant considerations, the government has in recent years more narrowly tailored the questions asked during the background investigation process to remove the stigma of seeking treatment. The catch-all question that sent many applicants into a tailspin of worry – “have you seen any mental health providers in the last 7 years?” – was removed from the SF-86 / PVQ six years ago now. That means in most cases, applicants with mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression no longer have anything to report on the form.

Second, the statistics support the assessment that most applicants with anxiety and/or depression need not worry about their clearance eligibility. Of all the security clearances denied or revoked annually, only about 2% have historically been due to mental health concerns. Of those, even fewer were solely due to mental health; many had other issues present like substance abuse or personal conduct.

Third and finally, a history of seeking treatment for anxiety and/or depression – to the extent that it now even comes up during the background investigation – is typically viewed as a mitigating factor, not an aggravating one. If anything, the opposite is true: not seeking treatment when warranted or ignoring medical advice is considered a judgment concern. Unfortunately, my experience over a decade of law practice has been that this message is a tough sell in some communities – most notably, the military. That’s a shame because the rumor mill and “my buddy told me” torpedo a lot of otherwise salvageable careers.

There is no shame in seeking help when needed and often a bigger risk for clearance-holders in trying to while knuckle one’s way through a rough patch in life.

 

 

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

 

 

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db378.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db379.htm

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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 https://www.berrylegal.com/practice-areas/security-clearance/.