Ft. Hood Fallout: Mental Screening for Military Recruits
Policy + Politics

Ft. Hood Fallout: Mental Screening for Military Recruits

© Erich Schlegel / Reuters

Military recruits might have a new hurdle to overcome before joining the armed forces: a mental health test.

Lawmakers from both parties in Washington are coalescing around legislation that would require military recruits to undergo a mental screening, much like they have to pass medical and physical exams, before starting boot camp.

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) introduced his measure on March 27, a week before the Fort Hood shooting left four soldiers dead and 16 injured. Since then, the bill’s cosponsors nearly doubled, and the measure has the support of House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), whose district includes Fort Hood. Last week Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

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The bill is one of several proposals from Congress about how to help prevent shootings on U.S. military bases. Some lawmakers have called on the Pentagon to loosen its restrictions on who can carry firearms on bases, while others have said mental health services for active-duty personnel need to be improved. Since mid-September, there have been three fatal attacks on domestic military installations, resulting in 18 deaths.

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“Despite increased awareness and expanded efforts to address behavioral health issues in the military, our service branches still face challenges when it comes to early detection and prevention,” Thompson said in a statement. “While the military performs comprehensive physical and medical evaluations, no similar examination for mental health exists.”

The lawmakers cite studies showing that nearly half of all servicemen who attempt suicide made their first attempt before enlisting, and that the suicide rate among veterans was more than double that of the civilian population from 2005 to 2011. Additionally, almost 20 percent of soldiers enter the Army with a mental disorder, a percentage in line with rates for the general public.

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The legislation is supported by groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

But some experts cautioned that the predictive efficacy of mental screening tests has not been proven.

“There’s often people who think you can just screen out folks who are going to do all kinds of stuff,” said Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist who’s written about psychological tests for recruits. “In short, it doesn’t work.”

She noted that such exams are self-reported, and applicants often know better than to reveal known mental conditions, nor does the Defense Department have access to all pertinent medical and psychological records. In the case of Spec. Ivan A. Lopez, the Fort Hood gunman who became an active duty soldier four years before the shooting, she said “there’s just no possible way that a screen at the time he came in could’ve predicted anything this far down the road. This idea of screening hasn’t been shown to work.”

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Lopez, 34, served in Iraq in 2011 and was in the process of being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder when the shooting took place. He served for nine years in the Army National Guard before becoming an active-duty member of the Army.

Military personnel already undergo periodic mental health assessments, such as post-deployment examinations. If signed into the law, the legislation would let the Pentagon decide how to handle recruits who fail a mental screening test and whether they could still join the military.

“It’s a good idea, but it’s going to have to be implemented very, very carefully,” said Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Kicking the person out is not really addressing the underlying problem,” he said, adding that screenings are helpful “as long as that assessment can translate into support and assistance for those individuals.”

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