Lawmakers argued this week that too many potential recruits are being barred from military service if they admit to seeking mental health treatment.
“We disqualify young men and women if they’ve seen a psychiatrist or if they’ve been on medicine for mental health and yet we want them to try to improve themselves,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, questioning Pentagon personnel officials during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.
“That’s just the wrong message,” he said. “They’re either going to lie, or they’re going to not seek help.”
The military has been rethinking some of the conditions that have historically barred potential recruits from serving, amid a recruiting environment that has seen an ever-shrinking pool of young Americans who are both qualified for and interested in service. But despite growing awareness of how common – and treatable – most mental health issues are, a past diagnosis of depression, anxiety or other disorders can disqualify a would-be recruit.
Sullivan said if a high school student interested in enlisting sits down and tells a recruiter that they were diagnosed with depression at one point and treated it with medication and therapy, they aren’t eligible to serve, something he hopes to eventually address with new legislation.
“Frankly, I can well envision, you’d rather have someone who sought help over someone who denied the need for that,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., added.
Gil Cisneros, the Defense Department’s personnel chief, responded with examples of how the military services are tackling access and stigma around seeking mental health treatment, but did not address the issue of past treatment affecting someone’s ability to serve in the first place.
There have been, however, some recent changes to accessions standards that have opened up the aperture of other previously banned conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In November, following what DoD called the medical accessions review pilot, the department updated regulations for 38 medical conditions that would allow some recruits to join without a waiver, as long as they met certain timelines for previous treatment and diagnosis.
“We used to say, if you have had asthma at any point you are not eligible,” Thomas Constable, the Pentagon’s head of manpower and reserve affairs, told lawmakers. “So we questioned all of those, working closely, of course, with the medical team…And that has brought in thousands more.”
For example, a recruit with a previous ADHD or dyslexia diagnosis does not need to apply for a waiver if they’ve not needed any treatment to manage it since their 14th birthday.
The Army is tightening waiver authority for recruits with issues like self-mutilation, misconduct and substance abuse
The military has dipped its toe into updating some of these standards in the past. In 2018, the Army changed its waiver approval regulations to allow potential recruits to admit to a past incident of self-harm before the age of 14.
A 2021 Rand study found that troops granted waivers for mental health issues or cannabis use between 2001 and 2012 performed as well or even better than many of their peers.
“Contrary to expectations, waivered recruits … with a documented history of marijuana or behavioral health conditions are not uniformly riskier across all dimensions,” according to the 2021 Rand Corp. report. “In some cases, they are historically more likely to perform better.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.