WASHINGTON — The Army issued waivers over 13 months to more than 1,000 recruits who had been diagnosed and treated for mood disorders and 95 more with a history of self-mutilation, according to data obtained by USA TODAY.
The acceptance of new soldiers with a history of serious behavioral-health issues, some of which can be lifelong challenges, came at a time when the Army struggled to meet its recruiting goals and was under sharp criticism from Sen. John McCain for accepting any recruits who had mutilated themselves. The time period ran through October 2017.
Last week, Army Secretary Mark Esper indicated that the Army issues waivers only for mental health issues that have been resolved, or upon further review, were misdiagnosed. There were no waivers issued for a history of drug overdose or suicide attempts.
“As the stigma of seeking therapy or counseling becomes less of an issue than when I grew up, you’ll see probably more cause for waivers,” Esper told reporters. “But again the waiver is only for an historical condition that we look at and assess. We do not allow anybody in who is undergoing therapy, who is a cutter or was a cutter, identified clearly as a cutter, or is using drugs. They are not allowed into the service. And I will not accept them. Quality trumps quantity every single day of the week.”
Mood disorders include conditions such as bipolar disorder and severe depression. Self-mutilation can indicate deep psychological problems.
“Bipolar in most cases is a lifelong challenge,” said Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatrist who retired from the Army as a colonel in 2010 and is an expert on waivers for military service. “It is more of a challenge when you’re younger and is not something you can simply be clear of. You’re often on medication for life.”
A history of severe depression raises the risk of suicide, a problem the military has sought to minimize in part by eliminating waivers for many behavioral-health issues in 2009, Ritchie said.
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