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Security Clearances and Psychological Health Care

Standard Form 86 (SF86), “Questionnaire for National Security Positions,” is the form that is used to apply for Confidential, Secret and Top Secret national security clearances. The U.S. government uses the information from SF86 to conduct background checks and evaluations of those individuals under consideration for a national security position and for those requiring access to classified information.

As you complete the form, you will need to answer Question 21, which addresses psychological and emotional health history. If you have received psychological health counseling in the past, or are coping with a psychological health concern and can benefit from treatment or support, reaching out for care alone will not automatically impact your ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance. There are many service members and veterans who have reached out for psychological support or care with successful outcomes, including maintaining their security clearance and continuing to succeed in their military or civilian careers.

This article explains what to consider when answering Question 21.

After two tours to Iraq, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Josh Hopper sought treatment and counseling to cope with psychological health concerns. Since seeking care, he has successfully maintained a security clearance and continues to excel in his military career. Watch more of his story here.

Question 21 of SF86

There may be some psychological health concerns that can impair the ability to safeguard classified information and hold a clearance. Therefore, Question 21 of SF86 asks if you have received counseling from a health care professional for an emotional or psychological health concern in the past seven years. However, there are several counseling circumstances that you do not have to disclose on SF86. Respond “No” or “Yes” to Question 21 based on the type of counseling you received, as outlined below:

Respond “No”
Respond “no” to Question 21 if the psychological health counseling was strictly related to:

  • Grief, marital or family concerns
  • Adjustments from service in a combat zone
  • Being a victim of sexual assault

Respond “Yes”

  • Respond “yes” to Question 21 for any other counseling for an emotional or psychological health concern taking place in the past seven years, along with additional information related to care or treatment received.

The psychological health care counseling you report is protected by privacy rights. Under your privacy rights, when a credentialed personnel security investigator contacts your psychological health care provider, they must first ask if you are coping with a psychological health concern that could impair your judgment, reliability or ability to safeguard classified information. If your health care provider answers “no,” then no further questions are authorized. Security investigators are only authorized to ask further questions if your health care provider answers “yes” so they can determine your eligibility to hold a security clearance. Additionally, under the privacy rights, officials such as security managers, commanders, supervisors and human resource personnel may not ask you or anyone else questions about your psychological health counseling.

Reaching out for Help is a Sign of Strength

The decision to seek psychological health care alone cannot adversely impact your ability to obtain or maintain a clearance. In fact, records from the Defense Department show that the majority of individuals who reported receiving care for psychological health concerns were able to obtain or retain their security clearance.

The decision to seek psychological health care counseling can actually favorably affect your eligibility for a clearance. According to Defense Department leadership, failure to seek care can increase the likelihood of developing a more serious psychological health concern that can make it harder to perform the sensitive duties that require a clearance. Reaching out for help is seen as a positive step towards wellness and recovery and can enhance your ability to succeed in a military or civilian career. If you or someone you love needs help coping with psychological health concerns, contact:

How the Military Community Can Help Dispel Myths Surrounding Care and Clearances

Line Leaders 
Military leaders can help dispel the myth by openly communicating that reaching out for help for an invisible wound is a sign of strength — it will not automatically result in denial or suspension of a security clearance or result in an invasion of privacy. Line leaders can establish a supportive command atmosphere that encourages service members to ask for help and seek psychological care or support when needed. 

Family Members 
Family members play an important role in helping service members seek help for invisible wounds. Family members can encourage their loved one to seek care by emphasizing that reaching out for help can benefit the whole family, and reinforce that doing so will not automatically harm their career or ability to obtain or retain a security clearance. Let your loved one know you fully support them in reaching out for help. 


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