Can Those with Mental Illness Serve in the U.S. Military?

Technically it's prohibited, but many are skirting the rules

Close up of Caucasian soldier wearing decorated military uniform
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I don't think anyone should be surprised to learn that the answer is no: people with current mood disorders, or a history of serious mental illness, cannot serve in the U.S. Military.

Army Regulation 40-501: Standards of Medical Fitness is the 151-page document that details what the U.S. armed services will and won't accept in terms of your medical history. It provides a long list of mental illnesses that will disqualify you for military service.

What Mental Conditions Disqualify You from Service?

You're disqualified from serving with the U.S. military if you have a current diagnosis or a history of a mental disorder with psychotic features, such as schizophrenia or paranoid disorder.

You're also disqualified if you have a current mood disorder, including (but not limited to) major depression, bipolar disorder, or affective psychoses.

If one of the diagnoses in that second group (major depression, bipolar disorder or affective psychoses) led to outpatient care that lasted for more than six months, or any inpatient care, then that medical history also disqualifies you. If your symptoms were of "a repeated nature that impairs school, social or work efficiency," then that disqualifies you as well.

Are Some People Getting Around the Rules?

In truth, plenty of people appear to be getting around the rules. Scan any discussion board on this topic and you will find scads of advice about how to circumvent the regulations, most in the vein of "Don't ask, don't tell."

I even read one woman's story about how her recruiter counseled her to stop her meds and not include her psychiatric history in her medical write-up. Needless to say, she washed out of boot camp. Still, even some recruiters are known to help potential recruits to slip by with an otherwise disqualifying diagnosis.

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.

More than 11% of U.S. military enlistees had more than one disorder, the study found. Intermittent explosive disorder was the most common condition found — some 8% of those in the study had it.

Effects of Mental Disorders on Service Members

Enlistees who had mental disorders prior to enlisting were more likely to have difficulty performing their jobs, according to the study.

In addition, having a mental disorder may make it less likely that someone will re-enlist in the armed services, and may limit promotional opportunities. The rules for military pilots are even stricter than those for enlistment.

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.


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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