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Army WON'T Lift Ban on Recruits with Some Mental Illnesses

by Countable | 11.15.17

UPDATED – November 15, 2017: The Army has rescinded its plan to issue waivers to individuals with a history of bipolar disorder, depression, self-mutilation, and drug and alcohol abuse.

The announcement comes days after USA Today first reported on the waivers, which led some on Capitol Hill to issue harsh rebukes against the Army — and administration.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) threatened to hold up Pentagon nominees until the decision was reversed. During a hearing on Tuesday, McCain complained that he’d only learned of the policy change from the newspaper.

“It's a problem that, frankly, that this committee is having with the administration,” McCain said. “We should've been told about this before it showed up in a USA Today article. The Army did not respond to a question of how many waivers, if any, have been issued since the policy was changed.”

After meeting with McCain late Tuesday night, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced on Wednesday that the Army had rescinded its September memo stating that people with certain mental health issues could seek waivers to join the service.

Milley admitted that the Army had done a “terrible” job explaining the policy change and credited USA Today for bringing the issue to his attention.

Milley told reporters that the waiver policy hadn’t changed, only who was allowed to approve them. A memo in 2009 made it so only the Department of the Army headquarters could approve the waivers. The recent memo allows the commanding general of Army Recruiting Command – Gen. Jeffrey Snow – to sign off on the waivers.

The general then read from a Pentagon policy on behavioral health issues that disqualify applicants, which includes major depression, bipolar disorder, self-mutilation, and attempted suicide.

“The decision to say no is given to Gen. [Jeffrey] Snow, but the answer’s still no,” Milley said. “Those are the categories. You ain’t coming into the U.S. military.”

Countable’s original story appears below.

What’s the story?

Individuals with a history of bipolar disorder, depression, self-mutilation, and drug and alcohol abuse can now seek waivers to join the Army.

The unannounced policy change occurred in late August, but was only revealed over the weekend by USA Today.

"The decision to open Army recruiting to those with mental health conditions comes as the service faces the challenging goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018," the newspaper wrote.

The Army placed a ban on mental illness waivers in 2009 amidst a surge of suicides among troops.

Why does it matter?

Lt. Col. Randy Taylor told USA Today that reinstating the waivers is possible because of increased access to the medical information of potential recruits.

"The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available," Taylor said in his statement. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”

But some mental health professionals are voicing concerns about the Army’s decision. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010, told USA Today that individuals with mental health problems are more likely to see those issues resurface during service than those without that history.

"It is a red flag. The question is, how much of a red flag is it?"

Ritchie said that self-mutilation in a military setting could cause disorder among the unit. "A soldier slashing his or her own skin could result in blood on the floor, the assumption of a suicide attempt and the potential need for medical evacuation from a war zone or other austere place," the paper explained.

What do you think?

Is the Army correct in once again granting waivers to recruits with histories of mental health conditions? Or should the 2009 ban remain in place? Are there better ways to increase recruitment? Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then share your thoughts below.

— Josh Herman

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