25 Percent of Army Soldiers Had Mental Health Problems Prior to Enlistment

Since the onset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of soldiers diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While war has long been known to cause trauma, even before it had the name PTSD, the number of incidences in current veterans has been staggering. A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs released in 2012 showed nearly 30 percent of the post 9/11 veterans had been diagnosed with PTSD.

Then there are the suicides.

Suicide rates for soldiers in and out of the military are at record highs. Between 2004 and 2009, suicide rates more than doubled for active duty combat soldiers. At one point the rates of soldiers dying by suicide was higher than those killed in combat, and the number of veterans committing suicide surpassed those of the civilian population.

A study released this week shows that risk factors may have existed prior to enlistment.

A series of reports by JAMA Psychiatry showing the results of a nearly five year study of the Army indicate that 25 percent of soldiers had exhibited signs of a mental illness prior to enlistment. Many had common disorders, such as depression, panic disorder and ADHD. Within the ranks of the one million soldiers studied, bi-polar disorder, substance abuse and suicide ideation (thoughts about or an unusual preoccupation with suicide) were also very prevalent. Those joining also already had a significantly higher rate of PTSD prior to enlistment.

All of these issues would make a soldier more susceptible to the stresses of war. However, the study also noted that the rates of suicide were also high among non-deployed soldiers. While suicide attempts among soldiers are lower than the civilian population, they are much more likely to succeed. The study notes that mental disorders are the main cause of military deaths.

Beginning in 2009, researchers focused on those that enlisted between 2004 and 2009, the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Army has traditionally  had a lower incidence of mental disorders due to their screening processes. However, during this time, recruitment efforts were hampered by the needs of two wars and a dwindling supply of willing suitable recruits. As a result, the Army lowered its standards.

Beginning in 2007, the Army began issuing waivers for people who would not normally qualify for service. This included increasing the percentage of recruits that had low scoring aptitude tests, as well as those who received waivers for moral and medical reasons. Moral waivers would be for things like misdemeanor arrests and criminal behavior (including robbery and manslaughter). Medical waivers would include previous drug and alcohol problems, including previously failed drug tests. There were no changes in mental health screenings, though the recruitment process relies on self-reporting.

Previous studies have linked drug and alcohol use to mental disorders as well as poor coping strategies.

The most common disorder in the study was intermittent explosive disorder, which is characterized by uncontrolled attacks of anger. More than eight percent of the soldiers of the study exhibited this disorder prior to enlistment, nearly six times the level of the civilian population. The disorder has been known to precede, and possibly predispose, depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems. The mostly males that suffer from this disorder often display sexual impulsiveness and are frequently involved in traffic accidents.

Previous drunk driving incidences were also part of the increase in moral waivers for Army enlistment.

In the end, the combination of lower standards, along with inadequate screening and a military culture that may be viewed as less than supportive of mental health issues, has created a perfect storm of sorts of soldiers with a higher risk of post-enlistment onset of depression, aggression and otherwise externalizing of already existing mental disorders. While the study did not identify causation, meaning that they did not say the act of serving in the Army led to the increase of these behaviors, they do feel there is a link. They conclude that the “evidence exists for associations of childhood stresses and mental disorders with poor soldier functioning, lending indirect support to the results reported.”

As to the higher rate of suicides, the lead author notes, “The former [preexisting disorder] gets people thinking about suicide, and the latter gets them to act on those thoughts.”

While there has been no response from the Pentagon on the report, it should be noted that new military recruiting standards went into effect in 2012 and included the elimination of waivers for misconduct, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks for the article.

Steven Gregory Davis

Issuing waivers so that mentally unstable people can carry and use firearms...What a grand idea...No, it isn't the TeaParty, or the NRA that we're talking about here, it is the "Corporation" whose motto is to "Be All that you can be, in the ARMY"!!!

Jacklyn W.
Jacklyn Walker2 years ago

This international problem is common to all of the worlds armies.

Imagine there's no armies... well John Lennon said it best in his amazing song Imagine. Maybe someone should modernise and re-record it to keep the thoughts alive for another few generations.

I can imagine and I hope you can too - today a sad smile.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.2 years ago

So many good comments I can only second them.

Pamela Bacon
Pam Bacon2 years ago

Given the increasingly disturbing actions of soldiers over the past decade can anyone really be surprised by this?

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L.2 years ago

I believe two things are going on 1. As mentioned in the article too many of our soldiers have problems before they enlist and 2. You cannot deploy a solider 3, 4, 6, or 10 times to a combat zone and expect him/her to come back whole. Once is enough to leave many soldiers with some psychologically and emotionally damage especially if the deployment is a long one; both situations along with the numerous rapes and other criminal acts among our military show us that the voluntary military is not working and will not work. We must make service mandatory for everyone out of HS who is mentally and physically able; with no exemptions. It should not be that the few take on the job of protecting our country while the rest sit on their butts and do nothing but complain or get fat and advance in THEIR careers. Once a 3 year enlistment is up one could be given a choice of National Guard Duty or Active Reserves until they are 45 years old; this would allow the National Guards to have trained personnel and be really for homeland duty and we would have an active reserve we could call up if the unfortunate event happened to make it necessary. I am a vet and I am ashamed of our military as it stands and ashamed of those who allow the few to protect the many.

Jennifer M.
Past Member 2 years ago

It's horrible to think that the U.S. military doesn't care about the individual at all. Everyone'ss just a body, there's no concern about their health.

Karen H.
Karen H.2 years ago

Sorry. Said "drug dealers" twice.
Well, maybe they recruit a lot of them, eh?

Karen H.
Karen H.2 years ago

There are young people who join the military to get an education and learn a trade. My cousin was one, and he’s a very successful businessman.
That said, however, it’s well known that the US military deliberately recruits convicted criminals, including drug dealers, rapists, drug-dealers and pedophiles. Evidently the idea is to get them off U.S. soil, out of our prisons, and hopefully they’ll be killed in the line of duty.

Julie Botsch
Julie Botsch2 years ago

Thank You.