Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper recently announced changes to a question on the SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions regarding psychological and emotional health.

The changes, implemented in November 2016, are designed to “better emphasize the importance of mental health and wellness of our federal workforce and others while simultaneously protecting our national security interests,” Clapper wrote in a memo.

The changes relate to Section 21 of the SF-86, which has been edited so that instead of asking about the “fact of” a person seeking help from a health care professional for a psychological or emotional health condition, it asks whether the person has:

  • Had a court or administrative agency declare them mentally incompetent
  • Been ordered by a court or administrative health agency to meet with a mental health professional
  • Been hospitalized due to a mental health condition
  • A mental or another type of health condition that has a significant adverse effect on judgment, reliability or trustworthiness
  • Had a health care professional issue a diagnosis of psychotic disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, delusional disorder, bipolar mood disorder, borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder

The preamble to the question explains that having undergone mental health treatment and counseling is not a reason to deny or revoke a security clearance. The reason for the changes was to shift the focus from whether a person has sought treatment, to whether the person has a condition diagnosed by a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or nurse practitioner that may interfere with eligibility for a security clearance, Clapper’s memo stated.

SF-86 Psychological Health Question

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Other changes include additional explanatory language to reiterate that the question is asked only as it relates to security clearance context and to make it clear that the government sees it as a positive when a person seeks counseling and treatment when necessary.

“The goal is to create a clear language that doesn’t discourage an applicant from self-reporting incidents related to mental and emotional health,” says Catie Young, an attorney who specializes in security clearance law.

This excerpt from Question 21E is a great example of the improved wording, Young says:

“If your judgment, reliability or trustworthiness is not substantially adversely affected by mental health or other condition, then you should answer ‘no’ even if you have mental health or other condition requiring treatment.


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For example, if you are in need of emotional or mental health counseling as a result of service as a first responder, service in a military combat environment, having been sexually assaulted or a victim of domestic violence, or marital issues, but your judgment, reliability or trustworthiness is not substantially adversely affected, then answer ‘no.’”

“There have been several high profile cases involving people with security clearances who committed violent acts in recent years, where further investigation revealed mental health issues existed that probably should have prohibited some individuals from having access to secure areas and information,” Young says. “These changes appear to be a step in the right direction toward identifying those potential risks.”

Be Honest on Your SF-86

Lying on the standard security clearance questionnaire is never a good idea. If you respond “no” to Q21, but investigators discover otherwise when interviewing your mental health professional and other known associates, further inquiry is likely to ensue.

Likewise, if you respond “yes” on your SF-86 to Q21, the investigator will contact your mental health professional to determine the correct diagnosis or level of concern with your mental health status. If no concerns are noted, and there is no perceived defect in your judgment as it relates to keeping safe confidential information, the inquiry will likely end. The investigator will then proceed to review the rest of your security clearance application.

Of course, if your mental health professional reports continued concerns about your mental health status, which could be the case if you discontinued mental health sessions against medical advice, for example, you may have to complete psychiatric evaluation before a judgment call on your character can be made.

Psychiatric evaluations are rarely requested by adjudicators, but they can be used if there is ever a risk posed to national security.

If you have questions or concerns about Q21 as it relates to your mental health status, get help from experienced security clearance attorneys. Please contact our office to schedule an appointment.