Before any individual can serve in any branch of the United States Military they must meet a series of eligibility requirements, ranging from good moral character to physical fitness standards.
Among these physical standards include the satisfaction of medical requirements. The majority of these medical requirements cover physical ailments that would make it difficult or impossible for Americans to serve our country.
However, they also extend to cover mental illnesses, referred to in the Navy’s Medical Waivers Procedures as “Psychiatric Conditions,” that would disqualify individuals from service.
Diagnoses like schizophrenia and panic disorders are rightfully considered disqualifiers from service. These afflictions can make individuals dangers not only to themselves, but to other service members in the high- stress jobs carried out by military personnel.
Other mental illnesses listed under disqualifying psychiatric conditions are less easily linked to danger or an inability to complete assigned duties. A history of recurrent depression, sexual disorders and eating disorders are enough to prevent an individual from enlisting.
Although preventing those with a history of these illnesses from serving their country should be reconsidered in its own regard, what is more concerning is the effect that the wording of these policies has on active service members and veterans who may be actively battling these issues.
A study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (USGAO) found that 2.1 million veterans received mental health care between 2006 and 2010.
A concurrent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that only 50 percent of veterans returning from duty will have access to the mental treatment they need.
The USGAO cites several reasons why active service members and veterans struggle to receive help in terms of their mental health, including logistical problems like long wait times for services or unmanageable travel distances to receive this type of care.
However, the majority of blame for lack of treatment falls on causes related to a stigma surrounding mental health treatment amongst active and former military personnel.
These barriers include personal embarrassment about service-related mental illnesses, fear of being seen as weak and shame over needing to seek mental health treatment.
The classification of these mental health issues as a barrier to entry to service perpetuates the stigmas and beliefs that become built into a service member’s identity, persist with them after service and dissuade them from pursuing proper mental health treatment.
Reclassifying these mental illnesses under “conditions traditionally considered waiver-able” will still allow the military to reject potential service members whose conditions are severe enough to prohibit job performance, but will allow for the review of each on a case-by-case basis.
Instead of perpetuating the stigma that service members with mental health disorders are less than, weak or incapable, reclassifying these medical standards will remind active and former service members that their illnesses are valid.