Too Crazy For Clearance: The Dangers of Stigmatising Mental Health Conditions

Let’s say that you are a government employee in the United States, or an employee of a private contractor who works with government materials. If you work with sensitive material, you need a security clearance. Security clearances come at a lot of different levels for different kinds of materials, and they all require a background investigation to determine whether you should have access to that information. There are a lot of things that can get an application for a clearance denied, like, say, sending money overseas to the wrong country, or having family members with a history of involvement in radical organisations.

Getting, and keeping, a clearance requires fitting in all the right boxes and staying there. One of the boxes that tends to get clearances denied or yanked very, very fast is a mental health condition. The argument, allegedly, is that mental illness might make someone unfit to handle classified or sensitive materials. I’m not quite sure I buy the logic here, myself; I don’t think that mental illness makes people inherently more likely to distribute classified information or sabotage things, for example. Nor do I think that mentally ill employees pose a danger to their coworkers, or that working with classified material is simply too much for delicate, unstable minds. In fact, I think that many people can and do work just fine with mental illness.

But. When you’re in a situation where having a mental health condition could cause you to lose your clearance, could lead to a demotion because the position you occupy requires a clearance, you have a significant problem. Which is that an employee will be extremely reluctant to seek treatment, to discuss the situation with supervisors, to take appropriate time to deal with the condition. And untreated or poorly treated mental health conditions can be dangerous for patients, in addition to potentially destabilizing the work environment.

Not because mentally ill people are inherently bad and can’t work with other people, but because people with untreated mental illness may be grappling with some complex stuff in addition to trying to do their jobs, and they are not superhuman. Untreated mental illness might lead to making mistakes, snapping at coworkers, not understanding directions, having difficulty with interpersonal interactions. Again, not because mental illness is inherently wrong. And there is not necessarily one right way to treat mental illness, either; there are many different ways a mentally ill employee could choose to address a condition and get more comfortable in the workplace, ‘treatment’ does not have to look the same for all people, but it may need to happen on some level.

Mentally ill employees dare not seek mental health treatments on their benefits programs for fear of having information leak out. Medical records are confidential, in theory, but there are duty to disclose situations as well as circumstances where accidents happen. For that matter, given the tight nature of some agencies, other employees might be aware if a coworker is seeking treatment and a careless ‘oh, she had to leave early to see Dr. Robbins’ can be a death knell for a career. Which means that employees are forced to seek treatment they can pay for themselves, if they can afford it.

When you’re seeking treatment you have to pay for out of pocket, it can be difficult to make appointments, stick with a treatment plan, afford your medications. You may seek treatment under a false name in the hopes of concealing the fact that you are in treatment, and this can create some problems as well. It’s a lot harder to adhere to treatment, to establish a stable and regular therapeutic relationship, when just seeking treatment, let alone discussing the situation with your employer, could mean the end of your job.

This is the direct result of stigma; because society believes mental illness is bad and mentally ill people are incompetent or dangerous workers, employers exercise discrimination against mentally ill employees. Those employees, rather than getting treatment and remaining stable in the workplace, may experience episodes of ill health that they didn’t have to endure, because they could have been in treatment, receiving appropriate care, and avoiding the consequences of untreated mental illness.

Every time incidents like shootings in federal workplaces happens, everyone hastens to condemn the crazy person behind the shooting, whether that person had mental illness or not. Everyone rushes to suggest that better screening is needed, that mentally ill people shouldn’t have clearance to work in places like that, to use the case as evidence that mental illness makes people bad and they should be excluded from society. Very few people suggest that intervention might be more appropriate for some workplaces, that identifying employees who are clearly struggling and making sure they have access to treatment could be a good idea, though the intervention model is not without problems.

And such programs are worthless if employees know that stigma could cause them to lose their positions and chances. A treatment program is not at all helpful if accessing it will make you unemployed. If you want mentally ill employees to seek treatment, you have to make it risk-free for them so that they have an incentive to do. Otherwise, there’s no reason to see a counselor about violent intrusive thoughts, or depression, or stress, or other symptoms of mental illness. And when a horrible situation happens and everyone around you condemns the crazy person, it’s a reminder that, yes, you shouldn’t seek treatment, no, you shouldn’t talk to supervisors about workplace accommodations, or ask for better handling of mental health issues in the workplace. Because to out yourself in any way could be to sign your own pink slip.