Question 21, Counseling and Security Clearance Applications
The issue of mental health stigma has always surrounded question 21 of Standard Form 86 (SF-86). It’s a fact that few applicants are denied a clearance based on listing mental health counseling on the security clearance form. But experts argue that including the question will prevent some from seeking help in the first place, knowing they’ll need to list any counseling on a future security clearance application or reinvestigation.
On September 4th, the Department of Defense emphasized its commitment to making the counseling received by victims of sexual assault more private. According to a DoD memo victims of sexual assault must still list any counseling received on their SF-86, but when it comes to using information about that counseling to make a clearance determination, the basis will be a yes or no question directed toward the individuals’ physician – ‘does the applicant have a condition that could impair their judgment or ability to safeguard classified information?’ If the answer is no, no further questions will be asked.
The memo seems to be a face-saving response to critics of requiring victims of sexual assault to answer the question. When similar criticism of mental health counseling stigma for victims of Post-Traumatic-Stress were reported, the Department of Defense in 2008 clarified that service members did not have to report counseling related to combat stress. In contrast, DoD is not excluding sexual assault counseling from reporting requirements, but is emphasizing its commitment to privacy for sexual assault victims.
When it comes to investigating a psychological condition, current practice as it already stands is to simply direct a yes or no question to the mental health practitioner providing the counseling. If the answer of impaired judgment or ability to safeguard information is no, information about the applicant’s condition aren’t released – regardless of the reason for the counseling.
In a recent interview, “Can Counseling Complicate Your Security Clearance?” Evan Lesser, ClearanceJobs founder and managing director, noted that security clearance investigations today are looking at the big picture surrounding an individual’s character and history, and also recognize the increased prevalence of mental health counseling. While counseling may have been an issue in the past, that isn’t the case today.
“They take into account the totality of someone and their actions, their circumstances, how they got there,” Lesser said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said he’s looking into proposals to amend the SF-86 to remove requirements to report sexual assault related counseling.
When it comes to security clearance adjudication, policy is clear that mental health counseling in and of itself is not a justification for a clearance denial, regardless of the reason for the counseling. Practically speaking, however, it certainly could prevent an interim clearance.