Officials considering updates to how the security screening process treats mental health

Defense and intelligence officials are considering updates to the psychological and emotional health questions on security clearance forms as part of a long-term effort to assure employees that seeking mental health care will not affect their clearance status.

Between 2012 and 2020, the Department of Defense’s Consolidated Adjudication Mechanism issued more than 5.4 million adjudications. Of these, 96,850 cases – about 1.8% – involved psychological guidance issues. And in those cases, only 62 permits were…

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Defense and intelligence officials are considering updates to the psychological and emotional health questions on security clearance forms as part of a long-term effort to assure employees that seeking mental health care will not affect their clearance status.

Between 2012 and 2020, the Department of Defense’s Consolidated Adjudication Mechanism issued more than 5.4 million adjudications. Of these, 96,850 cases – about 1.8% – involved psychological guidance issues. And within those cases, only 62 permits were denied or revoked solely because of the person’s psychological problems, according to data released by the DCSA.

Officials say those numbers help illustrate why it is extremely rare for a security clearance to be denied or revoked solely because of mental health issues. But they acknowledge that there is still a stigma that can convince approved employees that it is against their interests to seek psychiatric care.

Mark Fraunfelter, assistant director of the Special Security Directorate (SSD) within the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, says he believes these misconceptions are due in part to the very nature of the security clearance application, the investigative process and pronunciation.

“I think there’s a lot of ambiguity about how that final decision is made, and it really comes down to a risk management decision,” Fraunfelter said during a June 30 webinar hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “I think unfortunately a lot of people make the wrong assumptions and believe that seeking treatment or counseling for mental health circumstances can negatively impact that trust.”

Source: DCSA

Roughly one-third of Americans are concerned about their mental health, the American Psychiatric Association reported in late 2021. And Frownfelter pointed to a 2019 survey by the same association that showed only half of Americans feel comfortable discussing mental health at work place, while a third worry about the consequences of work if they seek psychiatric care.

“Employees of the intelligence community are dealing with the same stressors that everyone is facing right now,” Fraunfelter said. “We have financial difficulties. We have problems at work, family problems. And that will lead to depression, anxiety, some turn to substances to help alleviate some of these illnesses or conditions. So it’s important to dispel this myth about seeking support and treatment and how it could negatively impact your recovery.

Part of the stigma also stems from the old wording of the standard Form-86, the questionnaire people must fill out when applying for national security positions. Question 21 of the SF-86 refers to “psychological and emotional health,” and prior to 2017, it asked whether the applicant had sought psychiatric care in the past seven years.

The form has since been updated to provide a significantly longer preamble to question 21, which emphasizes the importance of seeking mental health. And the questions have been updated to focus on five “security risk factors,” according to a presentation released by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency:

  • Legal actions related to mental condition or court-ordered treatment
  • Potential harm to self/others (ie criteria for inpatient hospitalization)
  • Certain conditions which may, by their very nature, affect judgment and reliability
  • Failure to comply with care (if the above conditions exist)
  • Self-identified mental health concerns

Mariana Martino, assistant director of adjudication at DCSA, says the agency has tried to destigmatize mental health care in the Department of Defense and national security community by focusing on mental fitness, similar to how the military views of physical fitness.

Within the security clearance process, that means it’s considered a positive factor when an employee seeks mental health care, Martino says. It is also viewed by judges under the ‘whole person concept’, where security clearance decisions are assumed to be made based on the totality of a person’s actions, including mitigating factors, rather than just individual disqualifying factors.

“We’re positive about getting mental health care because you as an individual recognize that you need help and you go out and get it,” she said. “As a result of getting the help you need, whether it’s counseling or medication or a combination, therapy, whether it’s spiritual help, whatever that help is, you often avoid the undiagnosed consequences that manifest in other ways such as alcohol and drug involvement and financial problems.

Trusted Workforce 2.0

Fraunfelter says officials recently created a task force to look at further updating the way the security screening process accounts for mental health, including on the SF-86. The effort is part of the Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative to reform and streamline the vetting process.

“We want to modernize these questions,” Fraunfelter said. “And we want to move from a focus on asking about diagnoses for treatment to a more behavioral approach.”

An important component of Trusted Workforce 2.0 is “continuous screening,” a system of automated alerts to signal when an authorization holder faces a potential problem, such as a criminal incident or suspicious financial activity. The monitoring replaces periodic re-investigations, where investigators will conduct formal background checks on access authorization holders every five or 10 years.

“One of the key aspects of mental health conditions is early intervention,” Fraunfelter said. “And the fact that we’re getting real-time information, I think that puts us in that investigative process, there’s a welfare aspect to it, whereas before everyone’s investigation every five years didn’t necessarily give us that real-time information where we can separate resources to correct the problem much earlier.”

Michael Priester, chief psychologist in the sentencing division at DCSA, says that professional psychologists and psychiatrists currently play a minimal advisory role in security clearance cases.

“What mental health practitioners like psychologists and psychiatrists do is make opinions about whether an individual’s troubling behavior is likely to affect their judgment, their reliability, their stability and their overall reliability,” Priester said. “And so judges can use that as part of an overall reliability determination, and they will, by the way — often times not infrequently — disagree.”

He said the new task force helps provide “a great source of shared knowledge in terms of the kinds of things that matter to judges” as officials look at mental health within the broader Trusted Workforce 2.0 reforms.

“A diagnosis will only tell you so far, and I definitely agree that focusing on mental health is probably the exact opposite approach that we want to take,” Priester said. “We don’t want to discourage people from reporting mental health care, seeking mental health care. And on the contrary. . . this is the most common way judges mitigate these concerns.

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