Too Many National-Security Workers Shun Mental-Health Care, Leaders Say

Government and industry leaders are trying to get the word out: seeking help won't kill your career.

There was a time when all mental-health counseling had to be listed on the SF-86 or self-reported to security officers. Concerns about whether this reporting would affect security clearance eligibility – and thereby end a military or government career – caused many individuals to simply refuse to seek mental health treatment, despite issues caused by post-traumatic stress, marital issues, or even sexual assault.

After years of debate and a strong push by the military and intelligence community, in 2017 the SF-86 was updated to indicate that counseling did not need to be listed, just specific mental health conditions, hospitalizations, and other mental health topics directly related to reliability and trustworthiness. Despite that change to the SF-86, many in the national security community still see mental health issues through a pre-2016 lens, with concerns that counseling or mental health treatment could negatively impact their careers.

Years after the SF-86 update, the issue of educating the government and national security workforce about why mental health treatment is actually a positive step in security clearance eligibility remains. That concern comes as a growing segment of government and national security leaders are concerned that mental health may be the next epidemic hurting their workforces. 

“The facts show that we are experiencing a global mental health crisis,” said Amy Gilliland, president of IT service management company GDIT, and moderator of a recent panel hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) about mental health and intelligence careers. “The intelligence community hasn’t been spared in these facts.”

One in five U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) pushed clarifying guidance in 2020 to ensure cleared professionals knew that seeking mental health treatment for COVID-19 related issues would not cost their security clearances. The reality is mental health – while an adjudicative guideline – rarely results in clearance denials and revocations. In the 8-year span from 2012 to 2020 just .00115% of all security clearance denials and revocations involved mental health, and even in those cases, no one was denied a clearance simply for receiving mental health treatment. 

Officials across ODNI, DCSA, and the private sector are all working to reduce stigma around mental health issues and encourage cleared workers to get mental health care and treatment, and to clarify that doing so is actually a mitigating factor in the security clearance process. The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), which conducts investigations across more than 95% of the cleared workforce and interfaces with more than 105 agencies, has emphasized that there are no psychological conditions automatically resulting in security clearance denial. The key factor the government looks at is if the individual is following through with treatment. 

“If there is a myth out there that, ‘if I go to behavioral health [services] it will be a career-killer,’ … it’s to the contrary; we at adjudications very much see participating in treatment as a favorable thing,” said Michael Priester, the chief psychologist at DCSA.

For the very small segment of security clearances denied based on mental health issues, it is often failure to seek treatment that was an issue in the denial. Mental health issues are also often cross-populated with other significant adjudicative issues, such as alcohol abuse, criminal conduct, or personal conduct.

Working to Spread the Word

Both the government and private sector are pushing to improve the narrative around mental health. 

“Intelligence community employees, they deal with the same stressors that everyone is dealing with right now,” said Mark Frownfelter, assistant director for the Special Security Directorate (SSD) within the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “We have financial strains. We have work problems, family issues. And that will result in depression, anxiety…some turn to substances to help alleviate some of those illnesses or conditions. So it’s important that we dispel this myth about seeking support and seeking treatment, and how it could possibly negatively impact your clearance.”

Personnel security professionals across ODNI and DCSA emphasize the process is focused on behavior, not a specific diagnosis, and even though specific psychiatric conditions do currently need to be listed on the form, it is not because having those conditions will automatically result in clearance denial. What the government is concerned about is behavior. 

Priester emphasized that mental health practitioners involved in the security clearance process offer opinions on ‘behaviors of concern’ – but even those opinions are still considered through the government’s ‘whole person concept’ and left to the expertise of adjudicators. 

While the government looks to ensure cleared professionals don’t let stigma stop them from seeking mental health treatment, a growing number of government contractors are also working to ensure their workforces are getting the help and support they need. GDIT launched a ‘How are you, really?’ campaign to get to the heart of how its employees really are in a time of significant stress, societal pressures, and national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal government and private sector health plans typically include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) which include access to a certain number of free mental health sessions each year. But many companies and agencies find these to be an untapped benefit. In response to COVID-19, 39% of employers expanded their mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits survey. Despite increased access to mental health treatment, however, separate reports by the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) found that just 3.5% of employees take advantage of their EAP each year.

Frownfelter emphasized stigma may be one factor in keeping national security workers from seeking treatment, but EAP usage figures demonstrate it’s clearly not a problem unique to the IC.

“The good news is I think we’re in a unique place to address this,” Frownfelter said. “The pandemic opened our eyes to the mental health and well-being of our workplace.”

As companies and agencies look to support their workforces through proactive programs like dependent care, remote work, and flexible work hours, the conversation begins to pivot to how to seek help – and why that’s okay, including for workers supporting some of the government’s most sensitive missions. As GDIT’s program emphasizes, sometimes it’s OK not to be OK.