Mental health is a security concern because it influences how a person perceives the world, makes decisions, and manages stress. The fact that an individual has had, or continues to have, an emotional, mental, or psychological condition does not, by itself, preclude granting access to classified information. The issue is whether the individualís condition causes, or may cause, poor judgment or unreliable, untrustworthy, or dysfunctional behavior.
Many people, perhaps most people, experience some form of stress that threatens their self-image at some time in their lives. They experience failure to compete effectively with their peers; perceive injustice at the hands of a supervisor or employing organization; are terminated from a job under circumstances that prompt resentment; feel rejected or betrayed by a spouse; confront serious financial or medical problems; or are tempted by a seemingly easy opportunity for illegal monetary gain.
Emotionally stable and well-adjusted individuals generally respond to these experiences in positive ways: by learning from them, adjusting their expectations, working harder, or sticking with their core values. Individuals who are unstable or poorly adjusted, have a significant character weakness, or suffer from mental illness may react in ways that are self-destructive, counterproductive, or illegal. They may harm the organization by actions that run the gamut from absenteeism to self-serving decisions, theft, fraud, sabotage, or espionage.
Extract from the Guideline
(a) behavior that casts doubt on an individual's judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness that is not covered under any other guideline, including but not limited to emotionally unstable, irresponsible, dysfunctional, violent, paranoid, or bizarre behavior;
(b) an opinion by a duly qualified mental health professional that the individual has a condition not covered under any other guideline that may impair judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness;
(c) the individual has failed to follow treatment advice related to a diagnosed emotional, mental, or personality condition, e.g., failure to take prescribed medication.
The potentially disqualifying conditions are quite general. Some of the more specific circumstances that may be disqualifying under these guidelines include the following:
The potential security significance of a psychological condition depends upon how it affects the subject's judgment, reliability or trustworthiness, its severity (intensity and duration of symptoms), whether there has been appropriate treatment or whether the condition is typically responsive to treatment, and the judgment of a qualified mental health consultant about possible recurrence and what else might happen in the future.
In adjudicating mental health issues, we do not look only at an individual's past and current mental health and stability. We also look for potential future instability, unreliability, or untrustworthiness. Whether past behavior is likely to continue, get better, or get worse in the future is a professional judgment that requires the training of a qualified mental health professional.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association describes hundreds of mental disorders. Important categories of disorders include anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and phobias; mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorders; cognitive disorders such as dementia; personality disorders such as antisocial, paranoid, schizotypal, or borderline personality disorder; and schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.
As stated earlier, the existence of a psychological condition does not preclude the granting of a security clearance. Some conditions are unrelated to security issues and others can be mitigated by ongoing treatment or other factors. If indicators of a psychological condition are reported, additional inquiries should be made and consultation with a qualified mental health professional should be considered.
The following list provides examples of some of the most commonly observed clinical indicators of a possible mental health problem. In general, clinical indicators of the greatest concern are those that are disruptive to an individual's work or social functioning and/or activities of daily living. These indicators are sometimes identified during investigative interviews with supervisors, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. 1
Repetitive worrying or recurrent or persistent thoughts that cause anxiety or distress; recurrent nervousness, restlessness, or hyperactivity that impairs function or performance.
There are a number of other observable behaviors that relate to issues under Personal Conduct as well as the Psychological Conditions guideline. These behaviors are often found in persons who commit espionage or other white-collar crimes. They are also found to some degree in many law-abiding and successful individuals, so they are not disqualifying by themselves. However, they can and should be part of a whole-person evaluation when there is other adverse information about the individual. For further discussion of these behaviors and how they relate to security concerns, see Behavior Patterns and Personality Characteristics Associated with Espionage.
Executive Order 12968, dated August 4, 1995, states that "no negative inference concerning eligibility for access to classified information may be made solely on the basis of mental health counseling." The fact that an individual has sought treatment or counseling for a mental health problem does not suggest that the individual's problem is more serious than one who has not received counseling. When self-initiated, treatment is often a favorable indication that the subject recognizes the problem and is taking care of it. This voluntary action is positive evidence of reliability and a willingness to fulfill personnel security responsibilities. When investigative results are reviewed to make a security clearance decision, the fact that the individual voluntarily sought professional help is a significant positive factor in the decision.
The SF-86 security questionnaire filled out by all security clearance applicants requires reporting any mental health counseling or treatment received during the previous 7 years unless it is "strictly for a marital, family, or grief issue not related to violence by you, or strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment."
Military and civilian personnel on tours in combat areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan have been subjected to extreme stress that often requires some form of mental health counseling, and this does not need to be reported on the security questionnaire. DoD Instruction 6490.06, dated April 21, 2009, specifies responsibilities and procedures for implementing DoD policy to:
a. Promote a culture that encourages delivery and receipt of counseling.
b. Eliminate barriers to and the negative stigma associated with seeking counseling support.
c. Empower leaders to advocate for those in their charge to receive counseling.
d. Provide easy access to a continuum of counseling support to include prevention, early intervention, and treatment to enhance coping and build resilience.
e. View counseling support as a force multiplier enhancing military and family readiness.
The security questionnaire exempts reporting of marital or family counseling that does not involved the use of violence. However, life is not that simple. Marital problems may be a security concern if they are caused by alcohol, drugs, financial irresponsibility, certain types of sexual behavior, or any other behavior that would be of concern independent of the marital issues. The adjudicator needs to know if the marital or family problem was related to any form of physical abuse, alcohol abuse, drug use, financial irresponsibility, compulsive gambling, irresponsible use of weapons, or any other potentially disqualifying issue. The adjudicator also needs to know if family or marital counseling resulted in (1) prescribed medication that affects mental or emotional functions, (2) referral for additional evaluation or treatment, or (3) a diagnosis of any mental or emotional condition.
Many other forms of short-term counseling (six months or less) have no relevance to security. This includes counseling for adolescent or school adjustment problems during the previous 7 years, grief or bereavement counseling, self-improvement counseling, or counseling for victims of rape, incest, or other trauma.
A duly qualified mental health professional associated with the adjudicative facility and experienced in making personnel security judgments plays an important role in advising the adjudicator about the significance of an individual's behavior, how it relates to security concerns, amenability to treatment or counseling, and the prognosis for future behavior. However, it remains the adjudicator's responsibility to judge, based on all the available information, whether an individual's actions meet appropriate standards of reliability, trustworthiness, and good judgment.
As stated in the guideline, formal diagnosis of an emotional, mental, or personality disorder is not required for an adverse decision. This is because:
Conversely, the diagnosis of an emotional, mental, or personality disorder does not necessarily mean an individual actually has a security-relevant problem. This is because:
The Jonathan Pollard case, described briefly below, is an example of why it is often preferable to focus the adjudicative decision on the individual's behavior rather than any formal diagnosis.
The case of Jonathan Pollard, the Naval Intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, illustrates the problem that can arise from relying too heavily on a medical diagnosis.2 Well before he was suspected as a spy, Pollard's clearance was revoked on grounds that he was a compulsive liar. Pollard had been given approval from his supervisors to establish a back-channel contact with South African Intelligence through a South African friend he had known in graduate school. Through a combination of circumstances, he told fictitious stories about his relationship with the South Africans and these stories began to unravel. After telling Navy investigators tales about having lived in South Africa and his father having been CIA Station Chief there, which was easily checkable and proven false, Pollardís security clearance was pulled and he was told to obtain psychiatric help. The only apparent purpose of these stories was to make himself appear more important.
Pollard filed a formal grievance and got his clearance and his job back after a doctor testified on Pollard's behalf that he was not "mentally ill." The point is, that whether or not Pollard met the formal criteria for diagnosis of mental illness was irrelevant. His pervasive lying about official business demonstrated clearly that he failed to meet appropriate standards of reliability, trustworthiness, and good judgment. His lying was a symptom of his narcissism and grandiosity that subsequently played a role in his becoming an Israeli spy.
Extract from the Guideline
(a) the identified condition is readily controllable with treatment, and the individual has demonstrated ongoing and consistent compliance with the treatment plan;
(b) the individual has voluntarily entered a counseling or treatment program for a condition that is amenable to treatment, and the individual is currently receiving counseling or treatment with a favorable prognosis by a duly qualified mental health professional;
(c) recent opinion by a duly qualified mental health professional employed by, or acceptable to and approved by the U.S. Government that an individual's previous condition is under control or in remission, and has a low probability of recurrence or exacerbation;
(d) the past emotional instability was a temporary condition (e.g., one caused by death, illness, or marital breakup), the situation has been resolved, and the individual no longer shows indications of emotional instability;
(e) there is no indication of a current problem.
The following points elaborate on the above potentially disqualifying conditions:
Controllable with Treatment: Depression is perhaps the most common example of a condition that is controllable with treatment. The required period of compliance may depend upon the severity of the symptoms that would be expected if the individual failed to take the prescribed medication. Long-term continuation of the medication must be medically practical and must be expected to preclude recurrence of any condition that may affect judgment or reliability.
Voluntary Counseling or Treatment: The individual has voluntarily entered a counseling or treatment program for a condition that is amenable to treatment, and the individual is currently receiving counseling or treatment with a favorable prognosis by a duly qualified mental health professional approved by or acceptable to the U.S. Government (i.e., the adjudicative facility). The fact that an individual has entered treatment voluntarily, without it being required by a supervisor or a court, is a definite plus. It shows that an individual is aware of the problem and trying to deal with it. This mitigation would apply only to an individual who already has a clearance, not to a new applicant. An employer has an obligation to help an employee who develops a problem while on the job, but no such obligation to hire a new employee who already has a mental health problem.
Professional Opinion: This mitigating condition is used when a duly qualified mental health professional determines that a known previous condition is now under control or in remission and has a low probability of recurrence or becoming worse.
Temporary Condition: Traumatic personal circumstances often cause a temporary condition that requires some counseling or treatment but is not a security concern. If such a condition has not been resolved within six months, however, this suggests the possibility of a longer term condition.
No Current Problem: This mitigating condition is used when the adjudicator or a duly qualified mental health professional determines that the reported information is not really a security concern.
Many psychological conditions are the result of imbalances of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These imbalances can produce the observed symptoms and changes in behavior and are often treated with medication. In most cases, the source of the imbalance is both genetic and environmental, and often both medication and therapy are useful for treating the condition.
There are many different types of psychiatric medications, and the effects and side-effects of the medications vary a great deal. Important questions to be considered when adjudicating a psychological condition being treated by medication include: What symptoms caused the doctor to prescribe medication, or caused the subject to start taking medication on his or her own? How do these symptoms affect the subject's reliability and judgment? How does the medication affect the subject's reliability and judgment? What happens if the subject stops taking medication? Has subject ever failed or refused to take the medication?
Some psychiatric medications can have side effects that are relevant to security concerns and may require careful monitoring, particularly since different individuals react to psychiatric medication in different ways. The field of psychopharmacology is highly technical and is evolving as a result of ongoing and new research. Adjudicators should rely in each case on the input of their qualified mental health consultant.
This section has the following materials that cannot be reached by scrolling in this file. They must be accessed from the links below or in the Table of Contents to the left.
1. List provided by Dr. Leissa Nelson, PERSEREC.
2. Blitzer, W. (1989). Territory of Lies: The Rise, Fall, and Betrayal of Jonathan Jay Pollard. New York: Harper & Row.