For years, national security leaders have pushed efforts to remove the stigma that has surrounded mental health and the security clearance process. During the morning panel discussion at INSA’s The New IC, NCSC Assistant Director for Special Security Directorate Mark Frownfelter emphasized the value in seeking mental help. He said, “It’s a sign of strength.” For years, clearance holders and applicants were fearful of sharing any mental health struggles, often not pursuing help because they were afraid it would impact their security clearance status.
Panel moderator and Iron Butterfly Media co-founder Megan Jaffer asked panelists to share stories and efforts that highlight the change in the IC’s approach to wellbeing – especially focusing on mental health. Leaders continue to encourage the cleared community to not feel like they can’t share mental health struggles. Leaders emphasize that reality is often the opposite of impulse: not seeking help could have a negative impact on security clearance results.
CIA Director of the Center for Global Health Services Dr. Victoria Hoiles said, “The things that we ask people to do can have an impact. We are focused on their wellbeing and directed specific resources to provide support.”
Dr. Hoiles repeatedly pointed out the whole person approach in the security clearance process. She reinforced the message that receiving treatment is viewed as a positive for security clearance holders and applicants because it shows good judgment.
Changes for Applicants and Clearance Holders
The federal government has made major strides in the security clearance process, reducing barriers for applicants. Frownfelter said they have an aggressive campaign with the SF-86 getting a facelift, specifically addressing question 21. He said we’re still about a year away from seeing the new questionnaire in action.
It may seem like Continuous Vetting (CV) is more about catching issues sooner, and that’s not wrong. The goal is key. Trusted Workforce 2.0 allows for near real time information to surface. There’s a wellness factor here that keeps clearance holders from going five years before getting pushed to get mental health assistance. The sooner any issues are noted, the sooner they can be addressed.
Messaging about Mental Health
Frownfelter noted how good it is to see both the federal government and industry partnering in this message. While contractors may have a different color on their badges, the security clearance is the same. It takes a high level of communication to begin to change former realities and ongoing perceptions. Frownfelter shared that there’s been a robust effort from both government and industry to reinforce what the adjudicative guidelines are for. Creating a culture of talking openly about mental health struggles impacts recruitment and retention, and that makes it a national security imperitive.
The INSA panel blended policy and perspective, allowing both government leaders and those who have worked in national security to share their perspectives.
“Personal stories are key in bringing about awareness and change,” said Dr. Hoiles.
Leidos Vice President of Customer Excellence, Cynthia Strand shared, “Everyone in the security process represents the system – from the security officers to investigators to adjudicators.” It’s important that clearance applicants and holders feel welcome and supported. Strand emphasized how critical empathy is in the overall equation. When anyone is hired to support the security clearance process, this component needs to be emphasized. And Strand shared that leaders have an especially important role in this. Their example trickles down throughout the system.
Moving the WellBeing Dial
Intelligence leaders frequently say their workforce is the most valuable asset, driving wellbeing to the top of the priority list. Just this past year, the CIA hired their first wellbeing officer, highlighting the priority the agency has placed on this topic.
And telework in the IC is a piece of this conversation. Frownfelter said, “We need to do better and offer things that aren’t normally offered in the IC. In fact, 6% of the IC is under the age of 30, and 25% are under the age of 40. We need to do better recruiting and increase the happiness of the workforce.”