America's armed services have been in the spotlight in recent months, because of the continuing conflict in Iraq and also because of how the conflict has depressed recruiting efforts. One aspect of military policy continues to go largely unmentioned in the media: an ongoing — and unwarranted — discrimination against people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD has long been one of the most restricted categories when it comes to enlisting for military service. Although ADHD by itself does not disqualify a person from the military, it places significant restrictions on being able to enlist. Having ADHD may also restrict the individual from certain duties or positions (this is determined on a case by case basis).
It's too bad that such restrictions are in place, because military service is often an excellent option for people with ADHD. After all, many people with ADHD do well in highly structured environments and thrive on activity. It's hard to imagine an environment that provides more structure and activity than military service.
Recent changes in military policy regarding enlistment and ADHD are encouraging. Under guidelines in effect prior to 2004, a history of ADHD diagnosis or treatment was enough to disqualify a person from military service unless the individual could obtain a special waiver.
Under newly revised standards, ADHD is disqualifying only if the potential recruit has been treated with ADHD medication within the past year, or if he or she displays "significant" evidence of ADHD symptoms, such as impulsivity and distractibility. (The definition of "significant" is up to the military medical examiner.) Documentation of any treatment of ADHD within the previous three years must be submitted in advance of the medical evaluation. It is important to note that while the military’s policy may not seem fair or legal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it has yet to be challenged in a court of law.
Relaxed standards are a good start, but much more needs to be done, including reforming the overly restrictive (and counterproductive) policy regarding ADHD medication. An individual with ADHD who is being treated with medication is not necessarily "too ADHD" to be an effective soldier. A good argument can be made that taking the appropriate medication will make a soldier who is already capable into one who is even more capable.
The main benefits of drug therapy for adults with ADHD are significant improvements in attention, concentration, and mental alertness, along with a significant decrease in physical restlessness and impulsivity. Common results from taking the proper ADHD medication are significant increases in efficiency and productivity.
There is no logical reason to suppose that ADHD treatment methods (including medication) that are effective in the civilian population would be less effective among the military population. The bottom line is that, for many people with ADHD, taking medication improves performance. This is likely to be true whether the task at hand is peeling potatoes, filing records, or driving a tank. This is not to say that, without medication, that individual is incapable of peeling potatoes, filing records, or driving a tank. The point is that medication helps people with ADHD do these and other tasks with greater efficiency. What's not to like?
What about the soldier who fails to take his or her medication? And what if the medication were to become unavailable? The truth is that, when drug therapy is interrupted, people with ADHD don't stop functioning. They simply revert to pre-medication levels of efficiency. ADHD medications are not addictive, so there is virtually no risk that a discontinuation of medication would trigger withdrawal symptoms that could lead to impaired functioning.
In light of these realities, it's time for the military services to reconsider their restrictive policies regarding ADHD. Failing to do so will only continue to deny an important career option to many young Americans — and make life needlessly difficult for the brave and dedicated people with ADHD who already serve in our armed forces.