In 2019, mental health is a topic that is becoming more and more openly discussed. The National Alliance on Mental Illness projects that 1 in 5 Americans has some form of mental illness every year. That’s an astounding number of people suffering with illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, and more.
Most individuals who suffer with some form of mental illness are able to find a treatment that works well to help them live full lives and function on a daily basis without much trouble, and there are few jobs that are not within reach of a person just because they have or have had a mental illness.
But what about serving in the U.S. military? That’s a different story.
Being in the U.S. military, no matter what branch you serve in, is a tough job for at least some of the time. It is frequently high stress and has a high potential for trauma and mental strain. So those who are brought into the ranks need to be mentally fit just as they need to be physically fit to do the job and fulfill their duties and obligations.
Though a large percentage of the population experiences mental illness every year, the U.S. military expects soldiers to be at the top of their game with the mental clarity, acuity, and general health to obey orders that sometimes result in immense stress, danger, and bodily injury.
So, can you join the military with depression or other mental health illnesses? Generally, the answer is no, but as you’ll read, there are several exceptions and qualifiers to this rule.
Can you join the military if you have depression?
The American Psychiatric Association identifies clinical depression as a mental illness that affects millions of people every single year. It is characterized by feelings of sadness and melancholy, but this illness goes far beyond just feeling sad.
It is a deep and pervasive illness that also includes loss of interest in activities and relationships that once were fulfilling. Other symptoms include:
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Weight gain or loss not a result of exercise or diet
- Inability to focus or make decisions
- Suicidal thoughts
These symptoms would obviously impair clear thinking and would negatively affect a person’s ability to properly do any job safely, let alone a job that may put one in a life or death situation.
Generally, individuals with any current diagnosis of a mental illness are prohibited from serving in the U.S. military. However, if the diagnosis is not currently being treated and is no longer symptomatic, there may be opportunities for those who were previously diagnosed.
The U.S. Department of Defense has a directive that outlines their rules and policies for illnesses and conditions that prohibit service in the military. This document is called the Criteria and Procedure Requirements for Physical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction in the Armed Forces and outlines the specific standards that must be met in order for someone previously diagnosed with depression to serve.
There are some conditions that do not allow for any leeway to be made; meaning, if any of these criteria are met, the person is prohibited from serving. This includes:
- Any current diagnosis of a mental illness
- A history of or current diagnosis of a psychotic mental illness (such as schizophrenia)
- Bipolar disorder or other psychoses
However, if you do not currently have a diagnosis for depression, you may be allowed to serve if the following criteria are met:
- You have not had inpatient treatment or more than 12 months of outpatient treatment
- You have not had ANY treatment for depression in the last 36 months
These two criteria are key if you have a history of depression and want to serve in the military. It’s understandable that the military would want you to be of sound, stable mind — and remain that way for an extended period of time — before joining the military.
Can you join the military with depression and anxiety?
Anxiety is another common mental illness that impacts a dramatic number of people every single year and is perhaps more common than clinical depression. Anxiety disorders occur when the body’s natural response to stress becomes excessive and uncontrolled, and that stress begins to impact quality of life.
Some common symptoms include:
- Irrational thoughts
- Obsessive compulsive behaviors
- Inability to concentrate or make decisions
- Insomnia or restlessness
These are just some of the general symptoms of anxiety. There are many more symptoms that could be indicators of an anxiety disorder, as there are varying kinds of anxiety, like social anxiety, illness anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. military also has guidelines for individuals who have a history or current diagnosis of anxiety.
Generally, if you have a current diagnosis, you are prohibited from serving.
However, you may be eligible for military service if you meet the following requirements:
- You are not currently being treated for an anxiety disorder
- You have not had outpatient OR inpatient treatment for more than 12 cumulative months total
- You have received no treatment for an anxiety disorder for 36 months
Mental health disorders are a common occurrence, and for some individuals they are more prevalent than others. Many will respond well to treatment and be able to live and work without treatment within a few years.
But there are some mental illnesses that prohibit people from serving in the U.S military, and this is for their own good as well as the safety of other soldiers serving as well. Split-second decisions and situations of high stress and intensity may only compound or worsen the long-term effects of a mental health disorder, and so there are certain policies in place that determine who can serve and under what stipulations.
The U.S. military requires that members be both mentally and physically fit to endure the trials and stressors of active duty service. Thankfully, the Department of Defense outlines these requirements clearly, so one can easily determine if their current health or health history prohibits them from serving in the military.