Facing low recruitment levels, the U.S. Army quietly lifted its ban on allowing people with a history of mental illness, self-mutilation and drug abuse to serve in the military – despite warnings from the industry about the risks involved.
The new rules green-light recruits who have bipolar disorder, depression and issues with cutting – a process in which a person takes a knife or razor to his or her own skin – along with those who bite, hit or 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.”
“This contradicts everything we have been working toward for the past 10-to-15 years.”
Bryan says there is strong evidence to indicate self-injury is a “stepping stone to suicide” and is “the single strongest predictor of suicidal behavior.”
The Army signed off on the new policy in August but never announced it, according to USA Today, which first reported the news.
The decision to lift restrictions comes as the military looks like it will miss its goal of recruiting 80,000 new soldiers through September 2018.
In order to hit last year’s goal of 69,000 recruits, the Army also accepted men and women who did poorly on aptitude tests, increased the number of waivers for pot use and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses.
In fiscal year 2017, it paid out $424 million in bonuses, up from $284 million in 2016. In 2014, that figure was $8.2 million. According to USA Today, some of the recruits qualified for bonuses of $40,000.
When it comes to mental health, recruits who would have previously been barred can submit waivers allowing them to sign up.
The change reverses an eight-year ban on the wavers following a spike of suicides.
The move is especially troubling following the Texas church massacre a week ago, in which 26 people were killed and another 20 injured when Devin Patrick Kelley, a veteran with a history of psychiatric problems, opened fire inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
Following the deadly episode, it was revealed that Kelley made death threats against his superiors and escaped from a mental hospital during his stint in the Air Force.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Randy Taylor says the waiver expansion was possible because the government has more access to applicants’ medical records.
“These records allow Army officials to better document applicant medical histories,” he said – but adds that the “waivers are not considered lightly.”
The change in waiver procedures, which means requests can be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or in the case of the National Guard, by the State Adjutant General, has been "widely misinterpreted," according to Army Deputy Cheif of Staff Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Seamands.
"It's also important to note that the conditions themselves have been unfairly characterized," he added. "For example, a child who received behavioral counseling at age 10 would be forever banned from military service were it not for the ability to make a waiver request.
"We're not prepared to close the door on such individuals who are otherwise medically, mentally and physically qualified for military service," Seamands said. "We think this is the right thing for our Army, and the selfless young men and women who wish to serve."
Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the University of Arizona's Department of Psychiatry, told Fox News he believes lifting the ban is a step in the right direction.
“The label of mental illness is meaningless,” he said. “There are a ton of people who have a history of something – some kind of emotional trouble – and they are fine. There is no reason in the world they couldn’t serve in the military.”
He added, “Stereotypes are pretty evil all the way around. Because of the stigma (of mental illness), we stereotype them.”
Dvoskin said in some cases, mental illness might make would-be soldiers “tougher and better” as the result.
But some say accepting recruits with mental health conditions – specifically cutting - puts others at risk, especially in high-pressure situations in the field.
“Is it a red flag,” Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist who retired from the Army in 2010, said. “The question is, how much of a red flag is it?”
According to the Army, recruits with a history of self-mutilation must provide documentation that includes a detailed statement from the applicant, medical records, photos submitted by the recruiter and a psych evaluation.
The Army says the burden of proof will be on the applicant to provide a case why a waiver should be considered.