Leidos has shared their study shedding light on the persistent mental health stigma within the Intelligence Community (IC) and its impact on the security clearance investigation process. The research, released today, highlights that despite progress in recognizing mental health in application reviews, misunderstandings, misinformation, and stigmatization endure.

“The security clearance process is essential to protecting our national security, but it should not discourage current and prospective cleared employees from taking care of their mental fitness,” said Roy Stevens, Leidos Intelligence Group president. “As society takes a more sophisticated view on the importance of mental health, persistent stigmas remain. We hope this report sparks a new discussion focused on solutions, support and maintaining the talent pipeline for careers in intelligence.”

Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg, President of the Intelligence and National Security Association (INSA) and Foundation (INSF), commended Leidos’ initiative and shared, “By eliminating barriers to attracting talent the IC can grow and strengthen our resources while enhancing our nation’s security.”

The research paper titled “Mental Health and Security Clearances: Addressing Misperceptions and Stigma” is a study of the current state of security clearance procedures, offering both qualitative and quantitative insights. It also delves into the concerns of current security clearance holders and prospective applicants, who often fear seeking mental health support could jeopardize their clearance status.

The study revealed an increased awareness of mental health issues among younger clearance seekers, yet a significant level of distrust persists regarding the evaluation of mental health disclosures during the clearance process. This skepticism is intensified by a perception of a lack of transparency in the adjudication process.

Mental Health Stigma and Security Clearances in Intelligence Community

Informed by interviews with current and former security clearance holders, the white paper highlights the challenges, but it also offers a series of recommendations. These insights were further enriched through a roundtable discussion led by Roy Stevens, including representatives from the Intelligence Community, Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg of INSA, and industry peers.

Dean Boyd, chief communications executive for the NCSC share with ClearanceJobs, “It’s critically important that we dispel the myth that seeking support, counseling and/or treatment for mental health conditions negatively impacts an individual’s ability to obtain or retain a security clearance. The Federal Government has made great strides in messaging that mental health is just as critical as physical health and we continue to message that seeking counseling or undergoing treatment are positive, often mitigating actions that indicate an individual’s judgment, reliability and trustworthiness.”

Some of the insights and recommendations from the report include:

1. Leadership’s Role

Recognize leadership’s role in fostering a culture that prioritizes mental well-being. Senior leaders’ openness about their mental health journeys can influence broader acceptance, echoing the success seen with diversity leadership efforts.

2. Continuous Evaluation Support

A system of continuous evaluation to address mental health needs garnered support, with 35% of surveyed prospective talent experiencing mental health issues and 31% seeking treatment.

3. Recruitment Impact

It’s important to provide clear criteria for mental health evaluation. Overcommunicating can attract a more diverse and capable workforce by dispelling mental health stigma. Recruiters and clearance personnel need training to destigmatize mental health discussions.

4. Transparency

The lack of transparency in mental health evaluation within the clearance process contributes to mistrust, affecting prospective talent’s willingness to disclose mental health history. There needs to be transparent and explicit criteria for evaluating mental health, dispelling misconceptions and stigma.

“Undergoing mental health treatment is not by itself considered a negative or disqualifying factor when rendering eligibility determinations pertaining to access to classified information or holding a sensitive position,” Boyd shared with us. He explained that, “Personnel vetting officials are committed to utilizing the ‘Whole Person Concept’ when vetting individuals for positions of trust — an approach that includes a careful weighing of a number of variables of an individual’s life to inform national security eligibility determinations.”

Despite only 2% of initial DoD security clearance denials being related to psychological conditions, 63% of respondents were concerned about mental health history’s impact. Boyd noted that you can find additional information in Security Executive Agent Directive 4:  National Security Adjudicative Guidelines. He shared that this provides “the common adjudicative criteria for initial and continued eligibility for access to classified information or eligibility to hold a sensitive position.”

The findings and recommendations in the white paper highlight the intricate relationship between mental health, stigma, and the clearance process.

You can read the full white paper here.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.