Reaching out for care for your psychological health is an important, positive step in your military career. When seeking a role that requires a national security clearance, you will be instructed to fill out the Standard Form 86 (SF86), “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.” [PDF] The federal government uses information from this form to conduct background checks and evaluate individuals who are:
- Being considered for a position requiring a clearance, including Confidential, Secret and Top Secret
- Requiring access to classified information
Question 21 [PDF] covers your psychological and emotional health history in the past seven years. It asks if you’ve:
- Received psychological health counseling
- Been hospitalized for a psychological health concern
Question 21 is needed because there may be some psychological health concerns that can impair the ability to safeguard classified information and hold a clearance. The decision to seek care cannot alone prevent you from obtaining or maintaining a clearance.
Understanding Question 21
While this section asks about psychological health counseling and treatment, there are situations you do not have to share. Respond “no” to Question 21 if the counseling or treatment occurred more than seven years ago or was strictly related to:
- Experiencing grief, marital or family concerns
- Adjusting from service in a combat zone
- Being a sexual assault victim
The counseling you report is protected by your privacy rights. If you respond yes, a credentialed personnel security investigator will contact your health care provider. The investigator must first ask if you are coping with a psychological health concern that could impair the following:
- Ability to safeguard classified information
If your provider answers “yes,” then the investigator may contact you with questions.
If your provider answers “no:”
- No further questions are allowed.
- Officials cannot ask you nor anyone else questions about your psychological health counseling (e.g., security managers, commanders, supervisors and human resource personnel you may work with).
- You are encouraged to report any unauthorized questioning about psychological health care to the DoD Inspector General Hotline at 800-424-9098.
You may think that seeking help for a psychological health concern will cause your security clearance to be denied or even taken away. This is very rare. According to a National Intelligence briefing, only .002 percent of all individuals that answered “yes” to that question had a negative effect applied to their case. Seeking care can improve your ability to succeed in a military or civilian career. It builds your psychological strength and shows you’re moving forward toward wellness and recovery.
There are many service members and veterans who have reached out for psychological care with successful outcomes. That means maintaining their security clearance and continuing to succeed in their careers. It is up to the military community to help get rid of myths. Here’s how:
- Military leaders: Make it clear that reaching out for help is a sign of strength. You can establish a supportive command atmosphere that encourages help-seeking behavior.
- Family members: Encourage your loved one to seek care. Remind your warrior that this will not automatically harm his or her career and can benefit the whole family.
Note: Question 21 on SF86 was revised on Nov. 29, 2016. Revisions have not yet been implemented into the Electronic Questionnaire for Investigative Processing (eQIP) system. Once implemented, this article will be updated.
If you or a loved one needs additional support, you can contact the Psychological Health Resource Center to confidentially speak with a trained health resource consultant 24/7, call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1.
“Questionnaire for national security positions.” (n.d.). Office of Personnel and Management. [PDF 6.98MB]
“Access to classified information.” (1995, Aug. 4). Executive Order 12968.
“Revised instructions for completing question 21, Standard Form 86, ‘Questionnaire for national security positions’.” (2013, April 12). Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“DoD guidance on question 21, Standard Form 86, questionnaire for national security positions.” (2012, Sept. 4). Secretary of Defense Memorandum. [PDF 1.78 MB]