The US Military Mental Illness Waiver in Recruitment

Mental Illness and the military. Photo illustration by Devin N. Boyer/U.S. Air Force
Mental Illness and the military. Photo illustration by Devin N. Boyer/U.S. Air Force

The American military has taken the brave step of adjusting their recruitment procedure to allow people with prior mental illness issues to join. This contentious decision will no doubt be met with both applause and condemnation. What does the move actually mean and, more importantly, what will be the impact on the individuals who are put into highly-stressful situations?

Under a waiver system, the military will now consider taking applicants that have a history of mental illness including self-harm, depression, and bipolar disorder. Lt. Col Taylor, a military spokesman, said: “The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available,” in an interview with USA Today. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”

The onus will fall on the applicant to prove (via the waiver application) that there should be an exception made for their prior medical and mental health records. This is where the idea seems to break down. The point of a waiver is to absolve one party of responsibility for another. While the applicants will have to prove that they can rise above the mental illness information in their records, it fails to address issues that may not be in their official file. An applicant may argue that the documented incident was X number of years ago, when in fact they may have had more recent issues for which they did not seek treatment to avoid documentation.

There are far more cases of self-harm that are occurring than are reported or dealt with by medical personnel. Depression can only be documented at the points when someone enters or leaves treatment; it cannot track or record what happens before and after. So, while the military may be legally covered by such a mental illness waiver, it does not mean that they can make an accurate determination based on such incomplete facts and and volunteered information in a waiver.

What is also being ignored is the already inordinately high amounts of depression and suicide among military veterans. This is not unique to US service members, other countries like the UK have had similar issues. It is a disgrace to both the US and the UK that the incidents of veteran suicides (not to mention drug dependency, alcoholism, and homelessness) are already so high. If people with previously diagnosed issues of depression are allowed to enlist, we may likely see a rise in these tragic numbers, with pre-existing conditions being exposed to the stresses of military service.

Under this waiver system, the burden of proof does not necessarily rest with the military. A memo stated, “For all waivers, the burden of proof is on the applicant to provide a clear and meritorious case for why a waiver should be considered.” Such social engineering in the military is usually accompanied by lawsuits. The attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness and allow some of those who have had past minor issues to serve may seem admirable on the surface. How long before the military is taken to court for denying enlistment to a person who believes they have adequately defended their waiver? How long before someone with severe, but undocumented, mental illness slips through the waiver program?

Dealing with the mental health issues of service members who begin their service of sound mind and body is difficult enough. Taking on additional risk factors from the start is viewed as risky and potentially dangerous or deadly by many. The desire to serve is honorable, even among those who are the traditional type of soldier, sailor, airman or marine. The question is at what cost to the individuals themselves, military readiness or effectiveness under fire.

U.S. Army senior leaders on Wednesday downplayed reports that the service had recently changed its policy in order to grant mental health waivers to recruits with a history of self-mutilation and mental disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Rather, the service lowered the authority at which recruiting waivers could be approved, Major of the Army Daniel Dailey explained. In the past, the waivers could only be approved by Department of Army Headquarters level; now, he said, they can be signed off by Army Recruiting Command.

Dailey said the idea that “we want to get to an Army with no waivers would be incorrect.”

“There are waivers. There always have been; there always will be.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley read off DoD policy that states the individuals diagnosed with mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder as well as any condition involving self-mutilation are disqualified from entering military service.

“If you have a history of self-mutilation, you are not coming into the military,” Milley said.

The Army, however, reviews any requests for waivers to these disqualifiers on a case by case basis.

Mark A

Mark is a political writer and journalist who has worked on campaigns for Brexit.

About the Author

Mark A
Mark A
Mark is a political writer and journalist who has worked on campaigns for Brexit.

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