Take Care of Your Mental Health — Your Job May Depend On It

Many are turning to alcohol and drugs to cope with stress. You should rethink that strategy, especially if you have a security clearance.

COVID-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, most aspects of our lives for the foreseeable future. Notably, preliminary research on COVID-19’s impact on our mental health has been startling. Time reported a shocking 700% surge in reports of mental distress compared with pre-pandemic levels. With increased stress, anxiety, and fear—and with happy hours starting earlier and in isolation—an increasing number of people are resorting to drinking more, smoking more, or using more recreational drugs. 

It’s easy to enjoy all the drinking memes on Twitter, not to mention Ina Garten’s popular tutorial on how to make a quarantini, but there’s a dark side to all the revelry. Depression and stress are serious issues and deserve serious attention. Drinking wine, beer, or White Claws in moderation to unwind or socialize is great, but if you have a security clearance—in fact, even if you don’t have one—morning martinis and Ina’s cocktail aren’t healthy coping mechanisms. 

Moreover, with the lines between work and home blurred during our current teleworking circumstances, your boss may consider that type of behavior akin to “reporting for work or duty in an intoxicated or impaired condition, drinking on the job,” per guideline G of the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, commonly referred to as Security Executive Directive 4, or SEAD 4.

Security Clearance Factors

Using illegal drugs—even if legal on a state level, such as marijuana or medical marijuana—are not a reasonable method of handling a mental health crisis. Even properly prescribed drugs, if misused, could result in security clearance issues. Therefore, it is imperative that you work closely with your healthcare professional in managing medication or changing doses. While rapidly gaining in popularity, widely available CBD oil, gels and lotions promising to help ease anxiety (you can grab pricey Lord Jones lotions and oils at Sephora) are not currently accepted by the Defense Department or any other federal agency. Given its unregulated nature, CBD could still result in a positive drug test, and it will be difficult to demonstrate that you were simply using CBD and not THC.

Some members of the cleared community fear seeking professional help because they worry that certain diagnoses—alcohol use disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, and post traumatic stress disorder among them—will preclude their ability to hold clearances. The Defense Department  and the Director of National Intelligence have been making efforts to dispel this myth, expressly stating that “getting help for a psychological issue is a sign of strength. Speaking up can be a sign of good judgment, responsible behavior and a commitment to performance.” Ultimately, it is better for you and national security to seek treatment or counseling and carefully abide by treatment plans if prescribed.  

Nina Ren is Co-Chair of KCNF’s Security Clearance Law Practice, representing federal employees and contractors whose clearances have been threatened or suspended, or whose suitability for federal employment has been challenged. She has successfully represented clients before the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals, the Homeland Security Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and various intelligence agencies.