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Get mental health stigmas out of the clearance process

August 16, 2023

Melissa Duenas

Defense One

A room plaque at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. U.S. AIR FORCE / HEATHER HEINEY

By Melissa Duenas, Defense One / August 16, 2023

Old attitudes toward mental health treatment must no longer dissuade people from applying for cleared jobs or seeking help after receiving one.

Americans increasingly feel comfortable seeking mental health care, a beneficial change that should spur U.S. national-security and industry leaders to remove stigmas that have long caused clearance seekers and holders to deprioritize their mental fitness. If we fail to do so, we will miss an opportunity to bolster the wellbeing and effectiveness of today’s cleared workforce. And we will risk losing the next generation of talent, who will not sacrifice their mental health for a clearance.

The government has already made significant changes in how it considers mental health in the security clearance process. In 2016, James Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, removed the requirement to list mental health counseling (unless the condition impairs an applicant’s judgement) from Standard Form 86, the questionnaire every clearance seeker must fill out for their investigation. National-security leaders have stressed the importance of mental health. “It’s important to dispel this myth about seeking support and seeking treatment, and how it could possibly negatively impact your clearance,” said Mark Frownfelter, assistant director for the Special Security Directorate within the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, in an interview last year. In November, the Central Intelligence Agency named its first Chief Wellbeing Officer

Yet stigma and misunderstanding persist in the clearance process, according to research commissioned by Leidos. Earlier this year, we conducted an online survey of Americans ages 18-45 who are interested in applying to a job within the next three years that requires a security clearance. Our research found that younger prospective clearance seekers have less stigma around mental health, but many mistrust how mental health disclosures are evaluated during the security clearance process. 

While 80 percent of those surveyed agreed that seeking mental healthcare should be considered positively in the investigation process, nearly half (48 percent) said they believed that having current mental health issues will hurt their chances at a clearance. To put this in perspective, more prospective applicants think admitting to mental health issues will hurt their clearance approval prospects than: prior work for a foreign government (46 percent), income sources from non-U.S. sources (40 percent), or foreign citizenship at birth (33 percent). And even as the average American is increasingly willing to seek treatment for conditions such as depression or anxiety, 15 percent of prospective clearance seekers surveyed said they had avoided such treatment because they were worried about having to report it during the investigation process.

To find solutions to the challenges identified in our survey research, Leidos convened a roundtable of current and retired government leaders, who developed four key recommendations: 

First, leaders must lead by example. By openly sharing their own mental health journeys, senior intelligence-community leaders can send a powerful message to current and potential employees that prioritizing and protecting one’s mental well-being is both acceptable and advisable.

Second, the clearance investigation system should keep moving towards continuous evaluation for existing workers, not just periodic reviews. This would enable the government to promptly address matters and provide employees with resources and support systems to address mental health concerns before they become larger security concerns.

Third, recruiters and background investigators—who are often the entry points for security applicants—must have the empathy, knowledge, and empowerment to handle questions about mental health effectively. Investigators should receive comprehensive training and tools to destigmatize mental health in the security clearance process.

Fourth, the U.S government must establish and overcommunicate clear criteria for mental health evaluation. Clear overcommunication helps dispel perceived barriers to earning a clearance, prevent applicants from self-selecting out based on misconceptions, and foster a more inclusive and supportive environment of mental wellbeing throughout an employee’s life cycle. Society and the cleared workforce are poised to make mental stigmas a thing of the past. Old attitudes toward mental health treatment must no longer dissuade people from applying for cleared jobs or seeking help after receiving one. National-security leaders, along with industry peers who represent a significant percentage of the nation’s cleared personnel, must work together to cement lasting change.