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How to Answer Security Clearance Question 21 on Psychological Health

Update: As one of the most read DCoE blogs, we've recently published an update, “Worried about Security Question 21? These Tips Can Help.”

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U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Casey Jones

Many jobs in the military and government require a security clearance. Maybe you, or someone you know or someone they know has a clearance — confidential, secret or top secret — or will apply for a national security position in the future, requiring answers to Standard Form 86 “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.” The U.S. government uses the information from this form to conduct background checks and evaluations of those individuals under consideration for a national security position and for those requiring access to classified information. As you complete the form, you’ll need to answer questions about your personal life, including whether you’ve had psychological counseling — Question 21.

Seeking psychological health counseling or treatment alone won’t automatically impact your ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance, however, Question 21 still discourages some people from applying for certain jobs or from seeking help. The Real Warriors Campaign recently published an article, “Security Clearances and Psychological Health Care,” to help you answer questions about your psychological and emotional health history and to debunk myths surrounding Question 21 of the security clearance form. Here are some things to consider before you fill out the form.

Above all, be honest. Question 21 asks if you have received counseling from a health care professional for an emotional or psychological health concern in the past seven years. There may be some psychological health concerns that can impair the ability to safeguard classified information and hold a clearance. Still, you may be uncertain about whether the counseling you received should be reported. So, how should you respond? It depends on the type of counseling you received.

  • Respond “No” if the psychological health counseling was strictly related to:
    • Grief, marital or family concerns
    • Adjustments from service in a combat zone
    • Being a victim of sexual assault
  • Respond “Yes” for any other counseling for an emotional or psychological health concern taking place in the past seven years, along with additional information related to care or treatment received

Further, the psychological health care counseling you report is protected by privacy rights. Therefore, when a credentialed personnel security investigator contacts your psychological health care provider, they must first ask if you’re coping with a psychological health concern that could impair your judgment, reliability or ability to safeguard classified information. If your provider answers “no,” then no further questions are authorized. If you suspect a privacy violation, report it to the Defense Department Inspector General hotline at 800-424-9098.

Choosing not to seek care can increase your likelihood of developing a more serious psychological health concern that can make it harder for you to perform the sensitive duties that require a clearance. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength because you recognize a problem exists and are willing to take steps toward resolving it. In fact, the decision to seek psychological health counseling and treatment can be a positive factor in the security clearance process. An example is Staff Sgt. Josh Hopper, who sought treatment to cope with psychological health concerns after two tours in Iraq. Since seeking care, he successfully maintains a security clearance and continues to excel in his military career. Hopper’s story and others are featured on the Real Warriors website.

Find more helpful information surrounding care and clearances in this article and resources below:

If you or someone you know could benefit from psychological health care or support, contact the DCoE Outreach Center at 866-966-1020 to connect to resources and services in your area, or Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 to speak immediately with a counselor.

Comments (17)

  • Mark Rosenthal,LCSW 20 Aug

    I am a mental health provider working with Soldiers and some Marines. You advise to report "No" if your contact was strictly related to marital or family concerns. When I review records for a clearance investigator I am aware that possible fallout of both responses and do not give a response lightly. If the contact was related to unresolved safety issues or a long standing pattern of chaos in the home or primary relationship I will say they are a risk. I feel your advice is not correct. A better response is to say yes when you have had any contact with any type of counseling and then fill out the forrm to detail what the issue was you dealt with. Investigations are mostly looking for honset responses. If you say NO they will pull medical records and see you did in fact have contact. One strike before they even get to me or my peers.             
  • Bradford 20 Aug

    I would LOVE to see the EXACT FedGov definition of what a "psychological health concern" is...
    If I'm fruit-loop *CRAZY*, but not at all "concerned" about it, I'm clear, right?...
    Since we are ALL members of the Family of Man, and all our troubles arise from that, can't we ALL always answer "No" on question 21?...
    Since, as the article states, " There may be some psychological health concerns that can impair the ability to safeguard classified information and hold a clearance.", it must be equally true that there may NOT be some psychological health concerns that would be a security risk. WHICH is it?...
    What they're saying here, is that it's OK to LIE, as long as you use the correct words... 
  • DCoE Blog Editor 23 Aug

    @Mark, We appreciate your feedback. It is common for health care providers to face difficulties when answering questions about patient counseling and security clearances. Defense Department guidance states that an individual should answer "no" to Question 21 of Standard Form 86, "Questionnaire for National Security Positions," ( if the individual received family, grief or marital counseling that was not related to violence by them or was not court-ordered. For reference and more information, please read the following Defense Department guidance:

  • DCoE Blog Editor 23 Aug

    @Bradford, We appreciate your feedback. We understand that "psychological health concern" is a term that can cover a wide variety of situations. When answering Question 21 of Standard Form 86, "Questionnaire for National Security Positions," ( individuals should respond "no" if the counseling is related to marital, family or grief issues (unless related to violence by the applicant), being a victim of sexual assault or service in a combat zone. Seeking professional care for psychological health concerns beyond those mentioned above should not be perceived to jeopardize an individual's ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance. On the contrary, failure to seek care actually increases the likelihood that the concern could escalate to a more serious condition, which could preclude an individual from performing sensitive duties.  When completing the "Questionnaire for National Security Positions," it is important to answer each question honestly. Lying can disqualify an individual from obtaining a security clearance, while receiving treatment or support for a psychological health concern will not automatically impact an individual's ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance.

  • Ash 06 Sep

    What if your counseling was prompted by a sexual assault but as it continued developed into how the resulting depression impacted other areas of your life?
  • DCoE Blog Editor 09 Sep

    @Ash, Thanks for your question. When answering Question 21 on Standard Form 86, “Questionnaire for National Security Positions,” ( individuals should respond “no” if the counseling is directly related to being a victim of sexual assault. Individuals should respond “yes” for seeking professional care for psychological health concerns other than sexual assault, such as coping with depression. Seeking treatment for depression should not be perceived to jeopardize an individual's ability to obtain or maintain a security clearance. Depression is a psychological health concern that is treatable through therapy and medication. Failure to seek treatment actually increases the likelihood that the psychological health concern could escalate to a more serious condition, which could preclude an individual from performing sensitive duties and holding a clearance.

  • DCoE Blog Editor 16 Sep

    @Ash, We would like to add on to our earlier response for further clarification. We understand that during counseling other concerns may come up that are related, though not always directly, to the original reason for treatment. If your counseling is a direct result of being a victim of sexual assault, you would still answer "no" to Question 21 on Standard Form 86, "Questionnaire for National Security Positions."

    However, it's important to discuss any concerns about confidentiality and privacy with your counselor. Many do have concerns with the level of information they provide to a counselor. Before discussing any personal detail you have concerns about, it is recommended you have an open and frank conversation with your counselor about the topic of privacy and confidentiality. You can also review the clinic's confidentiality material that was issued to you on your first appointment; your counselor should have copies on file.

  • Alice 01 Oct

    The difficulty with this is that commanders often do not follow these guidelines. Diagnosed with PTSD after OEF in 2003, I fully disclosed my treatment (at that time there was not the combat exclusion) on my clearance update when assigned to a sensitive facility, continued making progress in recommended treatment, and never had any behavioral or performance concerns that should have impacted my ability to maintain a clearance. However, when the unit commander (a Colonel) realized my diagnosis and that I was currently being treated, he suspended my clearance and started proceedings to revoke it. Luckily, I was able to successfully fight his actions as being totally unfounded and had my clearance restored, but the fact that it was ever suspended was enough to unofficially blacklist me from a contracting job after I ETSed.

    On the other hand, a young private with no combat or even tactical unit experience received multiple Article 15 punishments and had involvement with local law enforcement for underage drinking, major motor vehicle infractions and crashes, and even failed a drug test. Despite his making verbal threats against his squad leader (me) and platoon sergeant and serious concerns about reckless behaviors and poor impulse control, the young man kept his clearance (despite multiple recommendations from myself, the PSG, and the 1SG) until the Colonel was forced to suspend it due to a second positive drug screen. Even then, he did not initiate revocation procedures.

    So, all the good intentions in the world don't mean anything if a soldier has a dinosaur for a commander, who believes "boys will be boys" excuses drunken recklessness, threats, and even drug involvement. But Lord help the female soldier who has a legitimate medical illness due to combat, follows reporting procedures to the letter, and has no unstable behavior. She will likely either lose her clearance permanently or lose her career anyway even if she has it reinstated. The Colonel actually refused to have me read back on for the facility because I "only had two months remaining until medical retirement" and he "didn't want to waste the S2's time". Actually, he wanted to maintain the impression that I had lost my clearance permanently, since without being read back on I would be relegated to a "Red Badge" and the unclassified portions of the facility. No employer with contract employees at that facility would believe that I was a viable hire. The Colonel's little stunt (and my lieutenant) also disclosed my PTSD diagnosis to the entire facility.

    So, be very careful how you present your diagnosis and treatment. Of course, honesty is absolutely essential, since dishonesty will cost you everything in the end, but sometimes even honesty is not enough to save you from prejudice and injustice.
  • DCoE Public Affairs 10 Oct

    @Alice, Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  • Leah 14 Mar

    Must military sexual assault victims who sought trauma counseling divulge this information on question 21? What is the current regulation?
  • DCoE Public Affairs 17 Mar

    @Leah, Thanks for your question. When answering Question 21 on Standard Form 86, “Questionnaire for National Security Positions” (, the current regulation allows for individuals to respond “no” if the counseling is directly related to being a victim of sexual assault. Check out this Defense news article

  • Steve 05 Jun

    I was recently medically retired due to Bipolar type 1 and PTSD with anxiety and depression. I got this diagnoses after a manic episode that had me arrested. I held a TS//SCI, prior to my discharge I received in official message traffic that my clearance had been suspended pending further details. Immediately after my arrest I voluntary admitted myself. After all this I know I answer yes to Q21. My question is now that I'm out and seeking employment in my military field should I even bother in trying? Even after continued treatment and medication management.
  • Jack 17 Jun

    I have had a TS/SCI clearance for over 10 years. I am currently going through a divorce that has rocked me to my core. I feel I need to seek help for depression and anxiety because of said divorce. I am afraid to go because I fear it could jeopardize my my future renewal of my clearance. Would seeking this type of help fall under grief/marital counseling?
  • DCoE Public Affairs 07 Jul

    Response from Capt. Anthony Arita, Deployment Health Clinical Center: First, I want to acknowledge your good sense and sound judgment for recognizing that you are in distress and could benefit from mental health support. I encourage you to avoid delay in seeking professional care as your symptoms could worsen if left unattended. You have a couple of options in getting started. First, you can seek out a mental health evaluation to determine whether your symptoms rise to a diagnosable level and, if so, formulate a care plan to help you experience relief from depression/anxiety and help you return to your full potential to perform your duties. Taking this route might raise a flag of concern regarding your security clearance eligibility, however if you are fully participating in your treatment and your symptoms are improving, you have demonstrated responsible actions to mitigate your condition, something that security managers and adjudicators want to see. Alternatively, you might first consider pursuing non-medical counseling services, such as through clergy or resources like Military OneSource. These services are appropriate when your symptoms are subclinical and are not of sufficient severity as to warrant a medical diagnosis. Grief counseling and martial counseling are examples of this. If your counselors suspect that your symptom severity exceeds this venue of care, then they would likely encourage you to seek medical attention, if not refer you themselves. It should also be noted that Defense Department guidance on Question 21 in the Standard Form 86 has reaffirmed that a person’s decision to seek mental health counseling alone cannot form the basis of a denial of a security clearance. There are protections built into the process to ensure that seeking care does not automatically jeopardize a person’s clearance. Please don’t let that concern be a deterrent to getting the care you need.
  • DCoE Public Affairs 28 Jul

    Response from Capt. Anthony Arita, Deployment Health Clinical Center: First, I commend you for seeking out professional attention to address your psychological symptoms. Being responsible and proactive with regard to your psychological health is vital for optimal functioning. To answer your question, the determinations that led to you being medically disqualified from the military would likely represent hurdles for a similar line of work as a civilian (assuming similar requirements for one’s ability to perform and function as well as the exercise of appropriate judgment and reliability in safeguarding classified materials). This is something to keep in mind as you consider employment opportunities, however you should not view that disposition as any reflection of your worth or your ability to contribute to a broader mission in any field. Prior psychological health treatment should not deter you from applying to employment opportunities that you're interested in pursuing.
  • Mattcg 29 Apr

    Hey guys got a question,  I sought out a consoler a while back due some basic marital problems that I was having with my wife. These was all non violant in nature but just arguing on a more frequent basis. However, during my sessions, my consoler suggested that I might be bipolar and she admistered a test to see if I was. When the results came back, it was determined that I have bipolor 1 and its moderate in nature. The question that have is this, should I answer yes to question 21 due to the bipolar, or no due to the type of console that was sought out prior? I have been following her advice as much as it is financially possible. However, I had to suspend my consoling sessions with her because of not being able to pay for her on a consistant basis and the distance that she was at and where I lived as well. I am afraid now that if I disclose this information I could lose this opportunity that I have. Can someone help?
  • DCoE Public Affairs 18 May

    Hi Matthew, thank you for reaching out with your question. We understand your concern — you’re not alone! However, it is incredibly important to mental health care when needed. Please read this recent blog post on the topic: Worried about Security Question 21? These Tips Can Help. You can also always call the DCoE Outreach Center at 866-966-1020 to ask more specific questions and find resources.

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