US Army Quietly Lifts Ban on Recruits With Some Mental Health Issues

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most likely as part of its quest to make a stated goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers by next year, the Army quietly loosened its rules in order to allow those with a history of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse to join its ranks through waivers.

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According to USA Today, the Army enacted the policy in August with no announcement. Newsweek reports that this ends an eight-year ban on the waivers that started after a spike in suicides in the Army.

This is the second year in a row that the Army has offered waivers to those traditionally seen as less desirable applicants. To meet last year’s goal of 69,000 new soldiers, the Army, USA Today reports, accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.

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“The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available,” Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman, told USA Today. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”

Taylor said that many “meritorious cases” had been found of highly qualified applicants who had been disqualified because of events that had occurred when they were young children.

The burden of proof for the waivers will be “on the applicant,” according to memos obtained by USA Today. Those with histories of self-mutilation require “a detailed statement from the applicant, medical records, evidence from an employer if the injury was job-related, photos submitted by the recruiter and a psychiatric evaluation and “clearance.”

The outlet also quotes a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010 and is an expert on waivers for military service who says that people with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not. Dr. Elspeth Ritchie took the most issue with the waiver for self-mutilation, which she says may signal deeper mental health issues. Bipolar disorder, on the other hand, can be treated with medication.

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The Army did not note how many waivers had been issued since the policy was changed.

My 2 cents: Do we want people to get help for mental health or keep it in the shadows in stigma (and therefore untreated) because they know they will be precluded from doing those things that they want to do, such as join the Army?

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The real issue for me is whether the U.S. armed forces are able to offer those with mental health issues real support—medical and otherwise—especially in light of what servicepeople face, either those with diagnoses before they enter the armed forces or those who develop mental health conditions after.

The policy in and of itself is not necessarily a bad one, but its execution will be key.

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Read more at USA Today and Newsweek.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.

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DISCUSSION

Well, you’d have to be crazy to enlist! Mental health doesn’t necessarily have to prevent people from achieving goals or happiness, but the Armed Forces is an extremely high stress environment. Perhaps if they restrict to non combat situations, though the need dor more combatants is probably why the restrictions are being lifted.

This program probably won’t be executed well. I remember reading about how Chelsea Manning had come out to her commanding officer (serving in Bagdad) via email basically saying she was having significant issues coping. She got into a physical scuffle with a female officer, she had to be restrained by fellow soldiers twice, they thought she was going to shoot them or herself w/ her weapon.

Her CO thought she was too valuable to be sent home. The computers with the classified info she later leaked, were not to be used recreationally, yet they were being used recreationally by several different people.

I mean, look how great the Armed Forces are now with sexual and domestic violence, I think they’re going to put people in conditions where they’ll have significant issues, then cover it up when they snap.