Desperate to meet recruiting goals, the Army is now accepting the mentally ill, drug abusers and “cutters” into their ranks.
The decision – made quietly – allows people with a history of mental abuse and self-destructive behavior to become soldiers, despite strong recommendations against it from mental health and military experts.
The new rules, Fox News reports, gives the green light to potential recruits who have bipolar disorder and a psychological condition known as “cutting,” where a person takes a knife or razor to their own skin. They also are permitting “biters” and people who bruise themselves intentionally.
“I am shocked,” Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at The University of Utah, told Fox News. “This contradicts everything we have been working toward for the past 10-to-15 years.”
Self-injury is the stepping stone to suicide, Bryan said, and is the single leading indicator of suicidal behavior.
The decision was made in August,and it comes as the service faces the goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers by September of next year. Last year, to meet their 69,000-recruiting goal, the Army accepted more recruits who fared poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers granted for marijuana use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.
During fiscal year 2017, the Army paid out $424 million in bonuses, up from $284 million in 2016. In 2014, that figure was $8.2 million. Some of the recruits qualified for bonuses of as much as $40,000.
The change reverses an eight-year ban on admitting people with mental illness. The ban was put in place after a shocking rise in the number of suicides.
The move is ironic, given the Texas Church shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley was a veteran with a history of psychiatric problems while he was in the military. Kelley escaped from a mental hospital and made death threats against his superiors while on active duty.
Accepting recruits with those mental health conditions in their past carries risks, according to Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010 and is an expert on waivers for military service. People with a history of mental health problems are more likely to have those issues resurface than those who do not, she said.
“It is a red flag,” she said. “The question is, how much of a red flag is it?”
While bipolar disorder can be kept under control with medication, self-mutilation — where people slashing their skin with sharp instruments — 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.
If self-mutilation occurs in a military setting, Ritchie said, it could be disruptive for a 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.
Expanding the waivers for mental health is possible in part because the Army now has access to more medical information about each potential recruit, Lt. Col. Randy Taylor, an Army spokesman, said in a statement. The Army issued the ban on waivers in 2009 amid an epidemic of suicides among troops.
“The decision was primarily due to the increased availability of medical records and other data which is now more readily available,” Taylor said in a written statement. “These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories.”
The Army is desperate for recruits, but this idea is probably one of their worst in years.