Before Friday, sexual assault victims in high-level military or intelligence positions were required to disclose if they sought counseling when applying for a higher intelligence clearance. But in a widely celebrated move on Friday, the Office of Director of National Intelligence announced that these individuals will now be allowed to keep their counseling history private.
The “infamous Question 21”, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it, asks if the applicant has received mental health treatment in the last seven years, in order to determine any psychological concerns. While seeking mental health treatment does not officially disqualify someone from receiving security clearance, it can delay it and expose the applicant to invasive questioning. By multiple reports, sexual assault victims often forego counseling for fear it will affect their ability to rise through the ranks. One woman profiled by NPR chose to quit rather than disclose her rape:
Jennifer Norris was a devoted member of the Maine National Guard.
“I was ecstatic. I absolutely loved serving in the military,” she says.
Norris still wanted a career in the Guard even after she was sexually assaulted by other members of the military. After she was raped, she says she got psychological counseling. But then it came time to renew the security clearance she needed for her job as a satellite communications technician. One question on the form — Question 21 — asked whether she’d sought help from a mental health professional over the past seven years.
“I just could not bear sharing that information with all those people when my husband didn’t even know,” she says.
Norris says the prospect of divulging that information was too much. Instead, she decided to leave the National Guard.
Seeking counseling for sexual assault will now join the list of exemptions currently in place for family, grief and marital counseling, and for post-combat stress. Those exemptions were only added in 2008, as part of the Defense Department’s campaign to encourage soldiers to seek counseling and dispel entrenched hostility to mental health care.
Even though roughly one-third of all female troops have experienced sexual assault in the military, victims continue to bear significant stigma and often stay silent about the assault. One study found that women who were sexually assaulted while serving are nine times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.