In the vast majority of cases, young Americans hoping to join the military cannot enlist if they have already been treated for anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. But there is an interest in changing that.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is working on a bill that would remove some of those barriers, he said Wednesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“We say to young Americans, right now, if your dream is to be an Air Force pilot and you have depression at the age of 16, you either have to not go get help, either if you went for help and you were prescribed medication and then you apply to be an Air Force pilot, you have to lie,” he said.
This has especially been a problem with children whose parents served, a very common demographic for new recruits, as their medical records are easily pulled from the Department of Defense’s own systems.
In 2017, the daughter of an Army lieutenant colonel tried to enlist in the Air Force, but because she had met a counselor as a child, struggling with the deployments of her father, the Air Force refused to let her join.
Her family fought back and in 2019 she was finally granted a waiver.
“I think that’s so wrong,” Sullivan said. “It’s happening right now.”
Although a mental health diagnosis usually disqualifies a recruit from the military, therapy and medication are available for service members diagnosed while in uniform.
In some cases, acute mental health issues may prevent someone from performing a particular job, but generally a well-managed diagnosis does not affect day-to-day service.
“We now have over three decades of experience with antidepressants,” Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University, told Sullivan during the hearing. “There is no evidence to indicate that it impairs performance.”
Although the bill is not yet ready to be introduced, a spokesperson for Sullivan confirmed that it is in the works.
“Addressing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care in the military is a priority for Senator Sullivan,” Ben Dietdrich told the Military Times on Thursday. “Our legislative team is still drafting legislation to address this issue.”
While a law would create a general standard for all services, there has recently been some internal work on this issue.
In 2018, the army has relaxed its directives for granting waivers to future soldiers with a history of self-harm: as long as it was limited to a single episode that occurred before the age of 14, and not within the previous five years, a recruit is allowed one waiver for behavioral health.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at the Military Times. It covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership, and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT