George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Taking the Stigma Away: Mental Health Treatment and its Implications for Obtaining Security Clearances

By:  Rebecca Cohen, CLASV Spring 2013 Student Advisor

As the war in Afghanistan continues into its twelve year, and forces from the Iraq War begin to draw down, a new focus has been put on the challenges that servicemembers now confront when they return home.  A major obstacle they must face relates to their mental health and emotional well-being.  Although there has recently been increased media attention devoted to the subject, a large stigma stills exists in the military community against acknowledging and seeking professional help for mental health issues, particularly for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many are hesitant to publicly admit that they are suffering from PTSD, yet statistics show that the disorder is very common among veterans.  A report from the Department of Veteran Affairs showed that over 250,000 veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn from October 1, 2001 through June 30, 2012 sought treatment for PTSD from VA centers.[1]  When one takes into consideration that many veterans suffering from PTSD have not sought treatment and are therefore unaccounted for, the number becomes staggering.  In fact, an estimated 11% to 20 % of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD.[2]

One of the major reasons veterans and servicemembers do not seek professional help for PTSD is because they worry that receiving treatment will negatively impact their career.  Often, they fear that getting the help will hinder their ability to obtain a security clearance.  In a process that is already drawn out and frequently tedious, it is understandable why one would wish to avoid the logistical and personal ramifications that may come from formally acknowledging the diagnosis.

However, the Defense Department has taken significant steps to prevent this from happening.  It is a misconception that one’s security clearance will be jeopardized because of mental health treatment.  According to data from 2009, approximately 99.98 percent of U.S. Army clearance applicants who reported psychological concerns on their Standard Form 86 received or maintained their security clearance.[3]

Furthermore, as part of the efforts to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, in 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates changed the disclosure requirements under Question 21 of the Standard Form 86.  Under this question, which asks about consultations with mental health professionals, one may answer “no” if it was “related to adjustments from service in military combat environments.”

Although more needs to be done to fully remove the stigma against receiving mental health treatment, it is important to know that such treatment will not interfere in someone’s chances to receive a security clearance.  PTSD is a legitimate and serious issue that interferes with a veteran and his or her family’s daily life.  Treatment of the syndrome should not and does not have be ignored for the sake of professional advancement.

There are many online resources that give information, support, and assistance to servicemembers and veterans who suffer from combat stress.  The following websites are just a few of the many:


[1] “Report on VA Facility Specific Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation new Dawn (OND) Veterans Coded with Potential PTSD –Revised December 2012, Office of Public Heath, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs

[2] National Center for PTSD,



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CLASV, George Mason University School of Law, George Mason University or any agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia.