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Is Question 21 still a part of security clearance?

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2022 | Security Clearance |

The infamous Question 21 of the security clearance form (SF-86) once asked if the applicant had sought help from mental health professional within the last seven. Saying yes was a red flag and even caused at least one person to leave the military rather than answer it. With greater awareness of PTSD and other documented mental health challenges related to military service, the issue of mental health has become increasingly common, and PTSD issues are now exempt.

Nevertheless, Guideline 1 (Psychological Conditions) Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information is one of the most misunderstood criteria for granting clearance. Executive Order 12968, issued in 1995, is not entirely clear when it states:

“No negative inference concerning the standards in this section may be raised solely on the basis of mental health counseling. . . . However, mental health counseling, where relevant to the adjudication of access to classified information, may justify further inquiry to determine whether the standards of subsection (b) of this section are satisfied, and mental health may be considered where it directly relates to those standards.”

The Standard Form SF 86 still has Question 21 these days, but it now clarifies the above, stating that counseling itself is not an issue. Moreover, it points out that seeking mental health care to address personal wellness can help with the applicant’s eligibility.

SF-86 now asks the applicants if they believe their mental health or other health conditions cloud their reliability, judgment and trustworthiness. It adds that those who believe the answer is “no,” should say “no” even if there is or was a documented mental health issue that required treatment. If the applicant does say “yes,” a short questionnaire is sent to the mental health practitioner. Their opinion, “yes” or “no,” is taken under advisement. Any lingering doubts would be addressed in a medical evaluation by a psychiatric consultant.

Reasons for disqualifications

Guideline I of the Adjudicative Guidelines has many rules, conditions and examples for potential disqualification, but it generally breaks down to the following:

  1. The applicant displays abnormal or dysfunctional behavior and refuses to seek treatment.
  2. The medical practitioner believes the applicant should not be cleared.
  3. The medical practitioner believes the applicant has yet to embrace the treatment prescribed.
  4. The medical practitioner determines that there is persuasive evidence that the condition is not under control.

Applicants must advocate for themselves

Despite the more enlightened guidelines used in recent years, applicants may still need to argue with the help of a military law attorney on their behalf to get or maintain clearance. Judges or doctors may initially misinterpret the information or realize they only have part of the story. The attorney can help protect their rights and interests in a dispute.