By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People in top U.S. national security jobs or seeking them will no longer have to disclose mental health counseling for sexual assault, the government said on Friday.
Workers and job applicants are asked on security clearance forms whether they have sought professional counseling in the last several years, and victims of rape or sexual assault can be reluctant to seek help because they fear it will trigger rejection or revoke their clearance.
The new interim guidance instructs victims, for now, to opt out by answering "no" to Question 21 on the standard security clearance form. Officials said they are working to revamp the mental health question on such background checks to eliminate the institutional stigma against counseling.
"We want to encourage individuals to get the help they need," Charles Sowell, deputy assistant director for special security in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Advocacy groups applauded the change, saying it could also help limit retaliation against those who report abuse.
"This change is a huge victory for survivors of military sexual assault," Anu Bhagwati, head of the Service Women's Action Network, said in a statement.
"From numerous calls we receive on our helpline, we know that Question 21 has kept survivors from seeking the critical mental health services they have needed to heal in the aftermath of sexual assault," added Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain.
Both military and civilian government employees as well as private sector workers for government contracting companies must pass a background check to gain official security clearance required for top-level intelligence work.
Nearly 5 million people hold such clearances and must fill out background questionnaire forms when they are reinvestigated every five or 10 years, Sowell said.
The perception that acknowledging any kind of emotional counseling could risk their security clearance has made victims unwilling to seek help, advocates have said.
Officials have formed a special task force to reword entirely the mental health question on Form 86.
The question is problematic because it does not differentiate between serious mental health problems that require hospitalization or acute care from routine mental health treatments like counseling, which can boost national security by improving employee's ability to perform their jobs, Sowell said.
"We really are trying to get away from asking about the fact of mental health counseling and getting to a question that focuses on an individual's ability to function appropriately at the workplace," he said.
The move came as the government grappled with the larger problem of sexual assaults in the U.S. military amid growing attention from lawmakers and advocacy groups.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)