Almost 20% of Soldiers Had Mental Illness Before Enlisting

Trio of studies underscores problems in screening process
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 4, 2014 7:05 AM CST
Almost 20% of Soldiers Had Mental Illness Before Enlisting
Members of the US Army's Bravo Company of the 25th Infantry Division are silhouetted by the moonlight on Sept. 10, 2011 at Combat Outpost Monti in Kunar province, Afghanistan.   (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Three new studies raise questions about how well the military screens its recruits, finding that almost 20% of US soldiers had a common mental illness before enlisting in the Army. The studies were commissioned after the recent surge in military suicides, and they find that most soldiers with suicidal tendencies already had them before enlisting, the New York Times reports. Some of the specific findings, per the NYT and the Los Angeles Times:

  • More than 8% of soldiers had thought about committing suicide; 1.1% had actually tried.
  • More than 8% of soldiers had intermittent explosive disorder (one of the symptoms is uncontrolled fits of anger) before enlisting; that level of prevalence is almost six times the civilian rate, and the disorder can increase the risk of suicide.
  • Pre-enlistment rates for PTSD, panic disorder, and ADHD were also significantly higher than civilian rates. That's strange because, typically, military rates for psychological disorders have been lower than civilian rates thanks to the recruitment process screening.
  • Pre-enlistment rates for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse were similar to civilian rates; rates for suicidal thoughts and attempts were lower, but still significant, considering the recruitment process is supposed to screen out anyone who's attempted suicide in the past.

"The kind of people who join the Army are not typical people. They have a lot more acting-out kind of mental disorders. They get into fights more. They're more aggressive," says a sociologist who led one of the studies. "The question becomes, 'How did these guys get in the Army?'" The results are based on confidential surveys and interviews with a representative sample of soldiers. The studies also found that rates of most psychiatric disorders, as well as the suicide rate, climbed during military service—even for soldiers who never deployed—but the reason is not clear. A psychologist who led one of the studies says more than 30% of military suicide attempts would have been prevented had recruits with pre-existing mental illnesses been barred from enlisting. But some experts say such recruits shouldn't be barred, but rather screening should improve so they can be offered more support after enlisting. (More US military stories.)

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