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Hiding in Plain Sight: Revealing Mental Illness When You Hold a Clearance

A MITRE cybersecurity engineer lived with mental illness because he feared jeopardizing his clearances and his livelihood. Fortunately, he learned, the dialogue is changing. Niall White hopes his story helps others.

Editor’s note: It’s a challenge for anyone with a clearance: balancing a life with mental illness against the perceived need to keep it under wraps. MITRE cybersecurity engineer—and cleared employee—Niall White has learned from his experience with mental health in the clearance process, as well as from updated guidance in that regard. We thank White for offering to share his story.

“If I see a counselor for my mental illness, will I lose my clearance?”

This question painfully circled in my mind for months. Mental illness, like a clearance, can be very personal and not often talked about. With the hopes that my story may provide some comfort to those who may be suffering, this is an opportunity for me to do something I’ve only recently begun to do: talk about it.

Niall White

Though my understanding of mental illness continues to grow, I’ve dealt with symptoms for as long as I can remember. These symptoms made the “yes or no” nature of the clearance process painful, to put it lightly.

I’d spent dozens upon dozens of hours filling out paperwork—then being interviewed, tested, questioned, and investigated. It was a recipe for me to feel very broken.

After receiving clearances, I refused to even research medical care. At the time, the Questionnaire for National Security Positions, Standard Form (SF) 86 Revision 2008, Question 21, required the reporting of any treatment for mental illness in the previous seven years. Even though the form included a short statement, “Mental health counseling in and of itself is not a reason to revoke or deny a clearance,” I felt that seeking medical care would affect my suitability, my job, and, admittedly, my general worth.

Time passed, and with symptoms at an all-time high, I painfully did my best to go through each day as a positive employee. On the outside, I may have had what seemed like a calm persona. But on the inside, I was struggling.

I knew I needed help but was too afraid to get it.

A Major Change Is “No Big Deal”

My best friend, who also happens to be my wife and co-worker, performed the selfless act of researching doctors and counselors and getting me appointments. I can’t say enough about what she did. Perhaps you can be that person for someone else.

As a result, I saw a doctor and received medication. I met with a counselor. Then, according to my understanding of requirements at the time, I reported it.

And do you know what? It seemed to be no big deal. More importantly, I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Nobody should be suffering because of fear based on policies and doctrines shrouded in mystery and misconception. 

Niall White, MITRE

The constant fear and pressure in my chest began to lessen. I can’t say what everyone’s outcome will be when reporting treatment for mental illness, but I can say mine was anti-climactic.

Each year, MITRE holds events for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Years ago, when my wife was researching the topic of mental health and clearances as she lovingly tried to convince me to get help, she came across heartbreaking stories of our military servicemembers taking their lives. They’d refused to get help with the fear they’d lose their clearances.

The story is more complex than that, but it’s also very simple: nobody should be suffering, let alone taking their life, because of fear based on clearance policies and doctrines shrouded in mystery and misconception.

Fortunately, the dialogue is changing.

With some trepidation, I attended a MITRE Neurodiversity Business Resource Group event where I gratefully spoke with others who also felt this topic should be discussed. And while reviewing a draft of this article for me, a friend and MITRE colleague found documentation, some relatively recent, on this topic. Here’s some of what I learned:

  • The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency states that “Seeking mental health services does not affect one’s ability to gain or hold clearance eligibility. Adjudicators regard seeking necessary mental health treatment as a positive step in the security clearance process.” Furthermore, “There are no automatically disqualifying conditions or treatments.”
  • The Pentagon states, “Seeking support to address behavioral health issues demonstrates inner strength and embodies the Warrior Ethos. Professional behavioral health counseling is not a threat to an individual’s security clearance; rather it can be a positive factor in the security clearance process.”
  • MITRE’s own self-reporting page states that seeking help “may be viewed as a positive sign that an individual recognizes that a problem exists and is willing to take steps toward resolving it.”

I had also learned that in the most recent questionnaire, SF-86 Revision November 2016, Question 21 contained significantly more language about mental illness and treatment, opening with:

  • The U.S. government recognizes the critical importance of mental health and advocates proactive management of mental health conditions to support the wellness and recovery of Federal employees and others.”

It then goes on to list specific cases where reporting is required, but even here reiterates:

  • It is important to note that any such diagnosis, in and of itself, is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility…”

In other words, not every situation requires reporting, and even if your situation does, it won’t necessarily affect your eligibility. Even if it did, remember: You are worth more than a clearance. This isn’t to minimize the importance a clearance may have in your role as an employee, but we need to regularly remind our colleagues of their positive contributions to their organizations, regardless of their clearance status.

Don’t Go into Battle Alone

I hope that those who might be suffering will see these and other messages. I hope you’re treated like the superheroes you are, and that we might all remember that people are more than just the traits we can see.

Additionally, if you or someone you’re close to are having suicidal thoughts or ideations, help is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273 TALK (8255) or call, text, or chat 988.

Moreover, if you’re active-duty military, you have rights under the Brandon Act, which “empowers service members to get the help they need confidentially, reducing the stigma associated with mental health.”

It’s a battle for me every day that few have known about. I wrote this to give at least a little comfort that you aren’t alone.