Can You Serve in the U.S. Military With Mental Illness?

Mental health disqualifiers for US military

Verywell / Evan Polenghi 

If you wish to join the U.S. military, be aware that people with current mood disorders or a history of certain mental illness cannot serve.

How do you know whether you or a loved one may have a disqualifying condition? The U.S. Department of Defense has a directive called the Criteria and Procedure Requirements for Physical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction in the Armed Forces which provides a detailed list of what mental health conditions prevent a person from being in the armed services.

Let's take a closer peek into the disqualifying conditions, and how people sometimes skirt around or bend the rules.

Examples of Disqualifying Mental Health Conditions

There are a number of mental health conditions that prevent a person from enlisting in the armed forces.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, you're disqualified from serving in the U.S. military if you have a current diagnosis or a history of most mental disorders. The presence of any disorder with psychotic features, such as schizophrenia or a delusional disorder, does not allow one to serve.

You're also disqualified if you have bipolar disorder or affective psychoses.

For depressive disorders (for example, major depressive disorder), disqualification from the service will occur if a person had outpatient care that lasted for more than 12 months or any inpatient care. A person with a depressive disorder must be "stable" without treatment or symptoms for a continuous 36 months to be eligible.

For anxiety disorders (for example, panic disorder), a person cannot enter the armed services if he or she needed any inpatient care or outpatient care for more than 12 months cumulatively. A person must not have needed any treatment for their anxiety disorder in the past 36 months.

Other disqualifying mental health conditions include:

  • A history of obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • A history of or current dissociative, conversion, or factitious disorder, depersonalization, hypochondriasis, somatoform disorders, or pain disorder related to psychological factors or a somatoform disorder
  • A history of an adjustment disorder within the last six months or recurrent episodes of adjustment disorder
  • A history of paraphilias like voyeurism or exhibitionism
  • A history of or current alcohol or drug abuse or dependence
  • A history of attempted suicide or suicidal behavior

Disturbances of conduct, impulse control disorderoppositional defiant disorder, or other personality or behavior disorders characterized by frequent encounters with law enforcement agencies, and antisocial attitudes or behavior are other mental health problems that warrant disqualification from the service. 

Likewise, a person may be disqualified from enlisting if his or her personality, conduct, or behavior disorder is believed to serve as a serious interference in adjusting to the military.

Other causes for disqualification include (but not limited to) a history of anorexia or bulimia, a history of encopresis (soiling your underwear) after the age of 13, or a history of an expressive or receptive language delay.

In addition, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be a reason for being disqualified if one has received treatment with the last two years or it has been significantly present since age 14. Autism spectrum disorders are also a disqualification.

Effects of Mental Health Conditions on Service Members

While currently having certain mental health conditions or having a history of a serious mental disorder technically prohibits a person from being in the military, research data suggests that many are skirting the rules.

A major study published in 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry found that some 25% of non-deployed U.S. military members had some sort of mental disorder, including panic disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression, and two-thirds of these had their conditions prior to enlisting.

The study also found that more than 11% of U.S. military enlistees had more than one disorder. Interestingly, intermittent explosive disorder was one of the most common conditions found.

How are people getting around the rules? It's not entirely clear, but people find ways to circumvent the regulations, most in the vein of, "Don't ask, don't tell."

The problem lies not in the technical disregard for the rules, but in the risk to the person who enlists. For instance, according to the study in JAMA Psychiatry, enlistees who had mental disorders prior to enlisting were more likely to have difficulty performing their job. 

In addition, the rules that exist make it unlikely that someone who develops a mental health condition in the military will seek appropriate help.

Note that the rules for military pilots are even stricter than those for general armed forces enlistment.

A Word From Verywell

The rules are ostensibly meant to protect those with the condition and others in the military.

That said, some advocates say the U.S. military should make more efforts to identify mental illness both in recruits and in established service members, not to kick them out, but to provide earlier treatment.

Such an effort could help foster needed assistance in an organization currently wracked with suicides, attempted suicides, and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, regardless of whether the military member joined with the mental condition, or developed it while serving.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Defense. Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction in the Armed Forces. 2018.

  2. Sharp ML, Fear NT, Rona RJ, et al. Stigma as a barrier to seeking health care among military personnel with mental health problems. Epidemiol Rev. 2015;37:144-62. doi:10.1093/epirev/mxu012

  3. Kessler RC et al. Thirty-day prevalence of DSM-IV mental disorders among nondeployed soldiers in the US Army: results from the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS). JAMA Psychiatry. 2014 May;71(5):504-13.


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