Joining the military opens the door for exploring new areas of the world, cultivating marketable job skills, enjoying long-term job stability and benefits, and obtaining an affordable college education. Due to the high level of responsibility, the military is notoriously selective regarding who’s allowed to enlist and serve. Those with a history of mental illness or substance abuse may wonder whether previous or persisting conditions will keep them from realizing their dream of serving the country, even if—and in s coome cases, especially if—they undergo professional treatment.
Mental Health Treatment and Employment Prospects
While it’s becoming more socially acceptable to pursue mental health treatment, some institutions have outdated rules and practices that can limit opportunities for those with a history of mental illness or addiction.
According to Military.com, those who’ve been admitted to a psychiatric hospital or residential facility, have been under the care of a physician for six months or more, or have symptoms that impact their ability to perform well at work and school may not be able to enlist in the military.
For many, the opportunity to obtain the life they want is a primary motivation for going through treatment for a mental illness or a substance use disorder. It may be discouraging when they discover that even after treatment, old mistakes or health conditions completely outside of their control may still prevent them from achieving a career aspiration. In some cases, it can even be a setback for their success or make them feel like they haven’t truly recovered.
Joining the Military After Treating Drug Addiction
Receiving treatment for drug addiction in itself isn’t a barrier to service. However, in some cases, a history of drug use can be, whether or not the individual received professional treatment. Drug addiction takes a tremendous toll on an individual’s health and quality of life, and unfortunately, addiction can have lasting consequences even after successful treatment.
Despite pop culture’s portrayal of those in the military drinking a lot of alcohol and experimenting with recreational drugs, the reality is quite different. All branches of the military have tightened up restrictions on substance use, and activities such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol are strictly prohibited. The use of illicit or illegal drugs, as well as a history of underage drinking, can disqualify an individual for military enlistment.
Using drugs and alcohol recreationally may compromise the individual’s physical and mental health, and under certain circumstances, use can seriously jeopardize the safety of other people in the military, as well as civilians. To minimize this risk, those who intend to enlist are screened for drug and alcohol abuse. During this process, a recruiter asks the individual if they’ve used drugs and whether they’ve ever been physically or psychologically dependent on a substance. Over the course of their military career, an individual undergoes random and routine drug tests to ensure that they’re not using recreational drugs.
These measures aren’t put in place to discriminate against those who’ve used drugs or alcohol. They’re only meant to ensure that those who enlist are able to carry out their duties. The military must consider whether an individual’s past substance abuse impacts their ability to serve.
Those who’ve experimented with drugs but never developed an addiction may still be eligible to join the military. The types of drugs an individual has used may affect their ability to enlist. According to the Military Authority, the military tends to be more willing to overlook alcohol use or a history with non-habit-forming drugs such as marijuana, but it takes a harder stance against drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Anyone who has sold illicit drugs is automatically disqualified from service.
Under some circumstances, those who’ve experienced drug or alcohol addictions but have successfully completed rehab and no longer rely on a substance may be able to enlist by getting a waiver. However, any history of drug use could potentially be disqualifying, even for those who are currently substance-free. The military decides on a case-by-case basis whether past drug use is a barrier to service.
While there isn’t a definitive answer to whether going through addiction treatment may block someone from enlisting, treatment is always the best course of action. Addictions are nearly impossible to overcome alone, and for many people, professional treatment is key to a successful outcome.
Joining the Military After Mental Health Treatment
Prior to enlisting, individuals are required to disclose mental health problems, both past and current conditions. According to the Department of Defense, individuals who have current diagnoses or histories of most mental disorders are disqualified from serving in the military. This is especially true of disorders such as bipolar disorder or those with psychotic features, such as schizophrenia, that impact an individual’s ability to accurately assess present dangers.
For depressive disorders such as major depressive disorder, or anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, an individual may be disqualified from service if they’ve completed more than 12 months of outpatient treatment or any duration of inpatient treatment. On the other hand, someone with a major depressive disorder diagnosis may be eligible to enlist if they’re stable and they haven’t undergone treatment or experienced symptoms for 36 consecutive months.
Being diagnosed with a personality, conduct or behavior disorder that could affect an individual’s ability to work and live closely with others, follow orders and act quickly also warrant disqualification from service. Other disqualifying disorders may include autism spectrum disorders, a history of eating disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
While these rules are still on the books and screening for mental health issues is an important part of the recruitment process, research suggests that many are skirting these rules on a case-by-case basis. According to a study conducted in 2014, a quarter of surveyed, non-deployed military members had a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety. Over 10 percent had more than one disorder. While it’s not exactly clear how people have found their way around these rules, it likely boils down to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
For this reason, it’s unclear whether seeking mental health treatment may impact an individual’s ability to serve in the military. However, seeking help is still the best option for those living with a mental health disorder.
Coping with Disappointment After Rejection
Getting treatment for substance addiction or mental illness can greatly improve an individual’s health and quality of life and open a lot of doors for employment opportunities. Unfortunately, joining the military with an anxiety disorder or a history of drug use may not be possible, and being rejected from serving can be very disappointing.
Reasons for joining the military range considerably, from wanting to see more of the world or taking the opportunity to learn a trade or get college tuition benefits. Regardless of an individual’s reasons for wanting to enlist, it may be discouraging when plans have to change.
While a military career is a dream for many, the truth is that 40 percent of recruits who enlist won’t complete their full term of service. In some cases, discharges are entirely outside of the individual’s control, such as a medical condition they develop after joining. Other times, they’re discharged for reasons related to conduct, family circumstances or job performance.
Talking to a therapist or an employment counselor can help those disqualified from the military work through their disappointment and identify other fields of employment that may fit their interests. While a military career may not be feasible for an individual, they can still serve their fellow citizens in meaningful ways, see the world and experience personal growth.
Untreated mental illnesses and substance abuse can be tremendous roadblocks that keep an individual from pursuing the life they want, either as a member of the military or a civilian. FHE has mental health professionals who specialize in treating a broad range of conditions to equip individuals with the help and tools they need for a healthy life. To talk to an admission specialist, call (844) 794-0814.