Unannounced policy enacted in August allows people with a history of “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse to apply to serve in the U.S. Army. The news about the decision comes while the Army tries to meet its goal and recruit 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman, the recruiting of persons with histories of mental illness is possible in part because the Army now has access to more medical information for every person that wants to join the forces.
“The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available. These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories,” Taylor told the USA Today.
In the meantime, Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatrist and an expert on waivers for military service, is not convinced this is a good decision. She thinks that accepting people with a history of mental health problems carries risks because they are more likely to have those issues resurface.
“It is a red flag. The question is, how much of a red flag is it?” Ritchie said.
She warns that, for example, self-mutilation (where people slash their skin with sharp instruments), can be disruptive for a unit because there can be blood and assumptions of a suicide attempt and that could result with a medical evacuation.
The Army has not stated how many waivers have been issued since the changes were made. In order to hit a goal of 69,000 recruits, last year the Army admitted applicants who scored poorly on an aptitude test, and it also increased waivers for marijuana use. Only 1.9% of those 69,000 belonged to Category Four – troops who score in the lowest category on military aptitude tests. In 2016 their percentage was 0.6%. Waivers for marijuana use has increased from 191 in 2016 to 506 this year. Using marijuana while in uniform is illegal, but recreational use of it has been legalized in eight states.
“The Army’s decision to rescind the ban for a history of mental health problems is in part a reaction to its difficulties in recruiting. You’re widening your pool of applicants,” Ritchie said.