According to documents obtained by USA TODAY, people who have a history of “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse are now able to obtain waivers to join the Army.
The new policy to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions was enacted in August, but it was never announced. The Army had issued the ban on waivers in 2009 amid an epidemic of suicides among troops.
The decision to overturn that ban comes as the service attempts to recruit 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018. To meet last year’s goal of 69,000, Army officials lowered their standards; accepting recruits who did poorly on aptitude tests. They also increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.
“The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available,” according to Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”
Retired Army psychiatrist Elspeth Ritchie explained that people with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not.
“It is a red flag,” she said. “The question is, how much of a red flag is it?”
Bipolar disorder can be kept under control with medication, but self-mutilation — where people cut themselves on purpose — may signal deeper mental health issues, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Ritchie pointed out that self-mutilation in a military setting could be disruptive for a unit, sparking the potential need for medical evacuation from a war zone or other austere place.
Potential recruits with histories that include self-mutilation must provide “appropriate documentation” to obtain the waiver, according to a September memo to commanders. Those requirements include 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.”
Slides for military officials who screen recruits show examples of people whose arms, legs and torsos have been scarred by self-mutilation.
“For all waivers,” one memo states, “the burden of proof is on the applicant to provide a clear and meritorious case for why a waiver should be considered.”
According to Taylor, “meritorious cases” are often found in highly-qualified applicants who had been disqualified because of events that had happened when they were young children.
“With the additional data available, Army officials can now consider applicants as a whole person, allowing a series of Army leaders and medical professionals to review the case fully to assess the applicant’s physical limitations or medical conditions and their possible impact upon the applicant’s ability to complete training and finish an Army career,” Taylor said. “These waivers are not considered lightly.”
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, Ritchie said, noting, “You’re widening your pool of applicants.”
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