National security needs ‘whole people,’ not perfect people
COMMENTARY | The whole person concept is one of the most critical elements of the security clearance process, and one of the most vitally important ones to improving communication around mental health and wellness, writes one observer.
It’s shrouded in secrecy, struggles to find enough professionals to fill its ranks, battles stigma and misconceptions, but is of absolute vital importance.
I could be talking about either national security or mental health when I describe that complex reality, so it’s no wonder that mental health continues to be a major issue for individuals contemplating or working within a national security career. National security leaders are deeply aware of the struggle for security clearance holders in reporting mental health issues and understanding how mental health factors into their career. Over the past decade, updates to the SF-86 have sought to clarify what mental health issues are actually an issue and improve acceptance of proactive mental health treatment.
But the effort to eliminate stigma remains a critical one for those in the national security space and is the focus of a recently released white paper by Leidos, Mental Health Stigma and the U.S. Security Clearance Review Process. The report notes progress that has been made around mental health stigma in the national security space, while also highlighting steps that still need to be taken to help cleared professionals get the help they need and allow potential applicants to not be deterred from pursuing a career in the first place.
Leidos put a focus on security clearance and mental health stigma as a part of its “Mission of the Mind” campaign, an effort to focus on supporting mental health, ending addiction, and elevating voices around topics of concern. It’s not the first company in the defense space to spotlight mental health, and it won’t be the last – particularly as many projections continue to show demand for mental health services rising, and much like the marketplace for cleared candidates, the system often failing to have enough qualified professionals.
The Leidos report shines the spotlight on a reality many in the national security space already know: when it comes to how mental health is treated in the process, like all things, nothing is “one size fits all.” An issue that may not even come up in one agency could prompt concern in another, for issues ranging from mental health hospitalizations to medication and treatment strategies. And while the numbers are clear – mental health issues result in very few denials or revocations – what they may not show is individuals who are excluding themselves from the process due to fear, unawareness, or disinformation.
A recent report from RAND highlighted online misconceptions about the security clearance process, including information gathered from forums like ClearanceJobsBlog.com, where applicants, investigators, and adjudicators converge to share their personal stories and anecdotes. Sites like that provide a critical forum for what is a vacuum of information, but applicants who fail to understand the whole person concept (or realize how often people can lie online), may be tempted to assume one individual’s story is prescriptive of what their experience would be like rather than realizing they’re vastly different.
Rather than limiting information that gets posted, however, I think it’s important for security clearance holders and applicants to continue sharing their stories – both successes and setbacks – so everyone can see that the path into national security is wide and divergent.
Fortune – and the security clearance process – both favor the patient. And reducing stigma around ANY issue always demands patience.
Current efforts reducing stigma around mental health issues are very prevalent across the top of the leadership funnel. More applicants at the entry-level are open to considering cleared careers as a possibility, even with would have previously been red flag issues like drug use or mental health struggles. But like all things in the government, thawing the frozen middle away from old misconceptions or perceptions will take time.
The Leidos report included two critical pieces that are worth continuing to explore to help improve understanding of the role of mental health in the clearance process:
- Continued efforts to provide information about mental health issues and how issues have been addressed by those who have served.
- Better clarification for mental health practitioners around how to answer psychological assessments.
Leaders have been incredibly proactive in discussing mental health and how addressing a mental health condition will not be looked upon unfavorably. What is harder to find is someone who has survived the middle layer of an intelligence career while battling a mental health issue – even one as simple as anxiety – and not seen their career suffer. Like all industries, the best advocates for the national security workforce are its people. And while it’s easy to find professionals who are proud of their intelligence careers, what’s harder to find are those who have come and stayed in an intelligence community career with a mental health condition.
“We heard repeatedly in our interviews that the main stumbling block to wider trust that mental health will not negatively affect one’s clearance is the lack of transparency in how the process works,” the Leidos report emphasizes.
In addition to further transparency within the ranks, the lack of understanding of the security clearance process by many mental health professionals may cause some to incorrectly fill out the form, or not provide the correct insight into what the government is truly asking (i.e., how a mental health condition affects reliability and trustworthiness as it pertains to protecting sensitive national security information).
An Issue Worth Solving
As the national security community looks to compete to win – and continue to leverage our strength of diversity and our strongest application pools – those mentally tough enough to admit they have a problem and need help are a critical element worth advocating for.
In a recent study conducted by ClearanceJobs around drug use stigma for security clearance applicants, individuals were also asked what other requirements would prevent them from applying for a security clearance job. While 20% of the overall population reported having to report mental health issues would prevent them from applying, 39% of applicants who identified as LGBTQIA said having to report some or any mental health troubles would prevent them from applying for a job.
The whole person concept is one of the most critical elements of the security clearance process, and one of the most vitally important ones to improving communication around mental health and wellness. The whole person concept means that no single issue – including mental health – will result in a security clearance denial or revocation. The national security community needs whole people, holistic people, those with a depth and breadth of experience, who come from diverse backgrounds, and who have overcome challenges – and still have a desire to give back to their country. The national security hiring process has long embraced the “whole person.” I do believe that as current education efforts continue and Trusted Workforce 2.0 reforms advance, that whole person, including those who have overcome mental health challenges while working in the IC, will emerge, expand, and steadily continue to crack the code of secrecy around mental health issues.