Editor’s note: this article has been updated.
For years, military leaders have insisted that troops in need of mental health care should reach out without worrying it will adversely impact their professional path.
Yet despite these assurances, fears still exist within the ranks that seeking help could lead to their security clearance being denied or revoked, sinking a career in the process.
But Defense Department data obtained exclusively by Military Times reveals that is not the case, and that troops lose or are denied a security clearance due to psychological issues at a low rate, and far less often than other disqualifying categories.
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, or DCSA, the body in charge of assessing candidates and processing clearances throughout the DOD, has 13 guidelines that can lead to a service member having their clearance denied or revoked.
Troops can lose or be denied a security clearance for either one of the 13 disqualifying guidelines, or for a combination of them.
Of the nearly 5.4 million security clearances that DCSA has adjudicated since 2012, just 1.8% involved psychological conditions, according to the agency.
And officials have denied or revoked DOD security clearances based solely on psychological conditions in just 68 cases since 2012, or 0.00115% of the time, according to DCSA.
A Military Times analysis from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2023 also found that the psychological conditions disqualifier was not a top-cited guideline for yanking or denying a military member’s clearance.
In each of the past five fiscal years, psychological conditions were the seventh most cited in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and the eighth most cited from 2021 to 2023, according to DCSA data.
By comparison, the data shows that disqualifiers involving drug or alcohol use and financial considerations were cited at a higher rate.
In other words, the data points to a critical point, according to agency officials and outside experts: seeking mental health assistance is not a significant driver of troops losing or being denied a clearance, despite such persistent fears in the ranks.
The agency has also analyzed nearly 100,000 cases going back to 2012 and found “no cases in which somebody, for simply seeking mental healthcare, failed to get or lost a clearance,” Dr. Michael Priester, chief psychologist for DCSA’s adjudications division, told Military Times in an interview.
“This is a pervasive myth,” he said of the idea that treating mental health will cost a clearance.
While leaders can stand before troops and assure them seeking mental health care won’t impact their clearance, Priester said his agency “actually has the hard brass-tacks data to prove that.”
“We’re really pleased to have that information to bring to the table,” he said.
Troops who disclose conditions like bipolar spectrum disorder, psychotic spectrum disorder and certain personality disorders are not automatically denied, according to Priester.
“Those are certainly conditions we would look more closely at because we wouldn’t want somebody…that had a psychotic spectrum disorder and had difficulties interpreting reality to be active in their clearance, certainly not without behavioral health treatment,” he said.
But a primary part of the agency’s assessment is less about the mental health diagnosis and more about whether a service member followed their provider’s treatment plan once they were diagnosed, Priester said.
Being honest about mental health history and adhering to a doctor’s treatment plan are critical in the clearance process, according to Daniel Meyer, a partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey who specializes in security clearance cases.
“You need to keep an eye on the central security concern, which is not your health,” Meyer told Military Times. “Security really isn’t concerned about your health, that’s your doctor’s job.”
Instead, DCSA wants to see that a treatment plan is followed after diagnosis, said Meyer, a former Defense Department senior official who led Inspector General efforts regarding civilian reprisals, whistleblowing and transparency matters.
“If you can’t follow the rules about something as important as your health, you’re not going to follow the rules on something as important as the handling of classified information,” he said.
Those mental health guidelines were revised in 2012, Meyer said, reflecting the normalization of mental health treatment in American society.
“By and large, most of this is [mitigable],” he said.
But while mental health treatment is not a leading reason cited for denying or revoking a clearance, Meyer still recommended that military clearance holders get a mental health assessment from an outside provider if they are undergoing treatment.
“Do not rely on a government doctor, because government doctors work for the government,” said Meyer, who regularly represents federal employees at all stages of the clearance process, from filling out the SF-86 form to adjudication.
“You need to have your own practitioner in addition to Army medicine, Navy medicine, Air Force medicine,” Meyer added. “You need to maintain your own files.”
‘You lied to us’
Several of the categories by which DCSA revokes or denies a clearance involve not only the infraction itself, but broader indications as to whether a holder can be trusted to follow the rules, according to the security clearance regulations and outside experts.
Running afoul of a category like drug use “raises questions about a person’s ability or willingness to comply with rules, laws and regulations,” the guidance states.
Entities like DCSA see truthfulness about past drug use as an indicator of more important qualities a clearance holder should have, and some past drug use is not the disqualifier it once was, Meyer said.
“Almost everybody who comes through with your average high school or college use of drugs is going to get clear, as long as they don’t lie about it,” according to Meyer.
That’s when things can get sticky.
“They bust you at some point, they ask the trick questions, you have to go on a polygraph or they interview your high school teacher who says they caught you under the stands at a football game smoking a doobie,” he said. “And now you’ve got an integrity issue. You lied to us.”
An omission suggests the prospective clearance holder can’t be trusted.
“They’re using the drug review process to assess not only your dependency on drugs, but also to assess your overall penchant for deceit,” he said. “Security would rather have a group of honest dullards working in the federal government than to have really high energy, exceptional-but-deceitful people.”
The sexual behavior DCSA guideline is another category where Meyer urges honesty, even if one’s consensual adult predilections may be awkward for a service member to disclose.
Like drug disclosure, it’s a realm where security adjudicators have liberalized along with the rest of society, even as concerns remain that someone’s proclivities could make them a blackmail target for foreign agents.
Meyer said he had multiple cases in recent years involving clearance holders with potentially embarrassing — but legal — sexual preferences and the clients ultimately received their clearance because they were forthright with security officers.
He also tells clients to be mindful of what they post online.
“I have a rule with my clients: I don’t want your junk online,” he said. “I don’t want a picture, even if it’s legal…Just get it off the internet, because not only can it be gathered by people who want to leverage you and get you to leak classified information, but it’s also placed in places that it could come up in another criminal investigation.”
A racy photo sent to another military member who is later investigated for an unrelated allegation could lead to authorities seizing their electronics and finding that image.
“There’s a lifestyle decision to make about how you communicate in this world,” Meyer said. “That means you’re going to start making decisions about your lifestyle when you’re anticipating a clearance or have a clearance. You’re going to have to pull back a bit and not put as much stuff up on Tinder or Grindr…In all these forums, the enemies of the state are out there watching them.”
In an era of easy credit and instant gratification, the DCSA’s financial considerations category looks for “failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts and meet financial obligations” as potential red flags for denying or revoking a clearance, according to the SEAD 4.
“An individual who is financially overextended is at greater risk of having to engage in illegal or otherwise questionable acts to generate funds,” the guidance states.
It is also the most-cited clearance guideline for each of the past five years, according to the data provided by DCSA.
That category has been overhauled in recent years via the implementation of the so-called “continuous vetting” program in 2021, which Meyer said may be why there are so many citations of that guideline in the DCSA data.
Instead of periodic checks on a clearance holder every few years, continuous vetting entails Defense Department personnel, and employees of dozens of other government agencies, having their names and personal identifiers continuously scanned through background check databases, with any new events sent straight to investigators.
If an employee comes under criminal investigation, or forecloses on a home, multiple agencies will ping DCSA with the news immediately. At the same time, DCSA software will automatically scan those databases for new information.
“If you go gambling and you win or lose more than $10,000, there’s a report that’s going to go to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Network…and your security officer is going to get an email in a couple days that you won $10,001 at MGM Grand, and then you’re going to be explaining to the security officer whether there’s something in your finances that’s compromisable,” Meyer said.
To avoid getting flagged, Meyer said he tells his clients to limit their credit card debt to $12,000.
“If you’re in the intelligence community, you should carry no short-term debt, and you should pay off your credit cards every month,” Meyer advised. “The best credit-worthy clientele in the United States really should be our clearance holders.”
Adhere to the ‘samurai code’
Meyer said every clearance holder should read the guidelines for disqualifying behavior every year, because they are “the samurai code of the federal workforce.”
When it comes to military members, he said a service member’s security officer is in a conflicted role and that outside experts should be sought, and random internet forums avoided.
“The training stinks, and I say that as a former senior official who was in charge of training in the intelligence community,” Meyer said. “You get the automated training with slides and people just zone out and it doesn’t sink in.”
But for a junior military member, clearance is about more than human resources or PowerPoint training, he said.
“The bottom line is you have agreed to live by those 13 guidelines,” Meyer said. “Focus on those and then get outside advice on things you don’t understand.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated which mental health conditions can disqualify a service member from a security clearance. There are no conditions that automatically disqualify a member, according to the DCSA.
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.