If I seek mental health care, will I lose my security clearance?
I hear this question a lot because I am a veteran and a security professional. I’ve also thought about this question lately in light of May being both Military Appreciation Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. For many veterans, our military experience taught us to suck things up and bury any negative feelings out of a sense of duty. While very noble, far too many of us have become a victim of the that notion by refusing to get help for mental well-being to address things that fester inside of us. Meanwhile, veterans continue to take their own lives at alarming rates. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported last year that on average 20 veterans commit suicide each day.
As many of you reading this know, there is a difference between sucking up physical pain on a run and not being able to cope with everyday stress because your mind doesn’t allow it. Many of us serving or who have served shy away from addressing mental health issues for a number of reasons, including fear of losing their reputation, military status or even their security clearance. In the past, people had to disclose all instances of mental health counseling on security clearance applications and report any and all medications they were taking for mental health purposes, and respond to broad, open-ended questions. These questions often discouraged us from seeking mental health support, afraid that their clearance would be denied or revoked.
Fortunately the Director of National Intelligence during recent years instituted security clearance reforms that helped address the stigma associated with these questions. The Questionnaire for National Security Positions now includes a new section with more specific questions related to mental health rather than the open-ended ones. And it provides the following guidance in the mental health section:
"Nothing in this questionnaire is intended to discourage those who might benefit from such treatment from seeking it. Mental health treatment and counseling, in and of itself, is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility for access to classified information or for holding a sensitive position, suitability or fitness to obtain or retain Federal or contract employment, or eligibility for physical or logical access to federally controlled facilities or information systems. Seeking or receiving mental health care for personal wellness and recovery may contribute favorably to decisions about your eligibility."
Mental health issues shouldn’t be suppressed. Think of it like an earthquake. Receiving support helps make the small quakes more manageable with little or no damage. But holding it all in with a sense of duty in mind risks it becoming a massive earthquake along with the destruction that follows, personally and professionally. The current guidance on the security clearance application encourages applicants to pursue counseling when needed. You can learn more about the specifics of the new security clearance application here.
I urge everyone – especially my fellow veterans – to get mental health support if they need it without the fear of discrimination or negative consequences. It could make a difference for you, your loved ones, your colleagues, and maybe even at getting and keeping your security clearance.