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Does Uncle Sam Really Want You?

Can you join the military with ADHD? The policy regarding enlistment has changed. Learn about the newly revised standards.

Uncle Sam poster recruiting for US army on american flag
Uncle Sam poster recruiting for US army on american flag

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 decreased 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 disorder (ADHD or ADD). So, can you join the military with ADHD or not?

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.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD?]

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.

[If You Have ADHD, These Are the Jobs for You]

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 habit-forming, so there is virtually no risk that a discontinuation of medication would trigger withdrawal symptoms that could lead to impaired functioning.

[Free Download: The Ultimate Guide to ADHD Medication]

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.

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  1. I really liked the article and agree with nearly every sentiment expressed, BUT.. I have to respectfully disagree with you on one thing – and it’s this:
    [“ADHD medications are not habit-forming, so there is virtually no risk that a discontinuation of medication would trigger withdrawal symptoms that could lead to impaired functioning.”]

    I’m 30 years old, and I’ve taken ADHD medication since I was 17 years old.
    When I was 20, I (temporarily) decided to stop taking my medication as I wasn’t sure at the time if my medication was a real benefit to me or not – I had never been without them as an adult and questioned whether or not my ADHD wasn’t simply teenage hormones and immaturity.
    I can say firsthand – the discontinuation of my medication DID trigger WITHDRAWAL symptoms! And pretty significant ones at that.. I was in like a 48 hour “coma” the entire weekend, forcing myself up for work that Monday took every fiber of my being.

    At work I was drag ass, totally out of it and just wanted to go back to bed, which I did the moment I got home til the next morning. Over the course of the week I slowly felt the fog lift as each night I went home a little less drained.

    By the weekend I was able to return to a normal sleep/wake cycle. However, my energy level, motivation, and attention were 50% of what they were on my medication. I was determined to see it through though and I expected a long road back to “normalcy” without medication.
    Over the course of a little over a year – my energy level, motivation, and attention slowly increased to about 75% of what they were on medication but had plateaued for 3 months or so.
    It was then that it hit me: NOW I REMEMBER.. *this* is the brain I had had my entire life and why I sought treatment in the first place!

    I knew then that my cognition was at its peak WITHOUT medication, and that it was unacceptable for who I wanted to be in life.
    I knew I truly did NEED my medication, I had my answer and accepted it.
    I immediately made a doctors appointment so I could continue taking my medication once again (and explained why I randomly stopped filling it for the past year plus!).
    Since then, I’ve been taking it for over a decade now and I can say with 100% certainty I am so glad I did. The night/day improvements in my energy, motivation, and attention I’ve continued to have on my medication are invaluable to me in my life.
    I know for a fact I would never have been able to get where I am and where I’m going had I remained unmedicated from 20 years old on. And it actually scares me even to think of where I’d be now and how much unfulfilled potential I would have wasted on my life without medication.

    ** WITH ALL THAT SAID.. **

    I 100%, without a doubt, KNOW my medication:

    I accept this and closely monitor any changes I experience and now actively consult with doctor if any arise.
    I feel being honest about the risks of taking ADHD medication with myself is what has allowed it to be so beneficial in my treatment.

    Everyone should know the risks and take them seriously and continue to do so diligently throughout their life while taking a medication.

    I felt this one part of your article about ADHD medication not being habit forming or causing withdrawals is completely wrong and an unsafe misconception to put in the minds of those just seeking treatment and their options.

    Thank you for your time and keep up the great work otherwise.
    God Bless!

    1. I must respectfully disagree with your statement. I am not trying to disprove you in any way or reduce your personal experiences to being false, however I think it’s important to differentiate your anecdotal evidence from current academic literature regarding the research of these medications. As a personal anecdote, I have been prescribed ADD medications from 16 until my current age of 26. Through this time I have taken three different medications, all of which had negative side effects which have deterred my usage of them. While I know and have appreciated their effectiveness in helping my performance in academia, I have also come to loath their impact on my social/personal life. For this reason I have restricted my usage of these medications to only when they are necessary, in fact I actually prefer not to take them unless I know my temporary performance outweighs my overall quality of life. During these ‘off’ periods I never notice any withdrawal symptoms or a desire to take them, on the contrary I actually enjoy not being on them far more.

      Now again I must stress that I have no doubt your experiences are true but I do not think they reflect the consensus of those taking the medications or the current research. I have reviewed many articles on these substances and whether these medications are addictive or impose withdrawal symptoms is inconclusive at best.

      The reason I am writing this is because I recently attempted to join an branch of the military to contribute my skills as a doctor of physical therapy. Despite graduating with honors and being in good physical condition, I was swiftly disqualified due to my ADD medication. I find this to be an inappropriate and antiquated. Personally I know that I have more than enough ability to serve and contribute to my country both on and off this medication. Regardless, I am unable to qualify until I am off the medication for 12 months. Unfortunately had I known this fact I would have stopped a long time ago, but I still do not agree with this policy. I feel many people with ADD can relate to my experience, and should not be regarded as incapable of serving simply because of these medications. I know that I would be ready to meet all requirements of the military even 24 hours after my last dose, but having to wait 12 months is simply overkill.

      1. Hi, I’m currently looking to join the military and have had similar experiences. I’m heavily researching protections for people with ADHD under the Americans with Disabilities Act with regards to joining the military. I would love the opportunity to speak with you about your experience. Is there any chance I can email you or we can speak on the phone?

        1. I can’t definitely relate to this post. I’m am currently trying to join. I was diagnosed as a child. I would love to talk and get more information.

      2. I too have had a very similar experience when I tried to join the military recently. I would very much like the opportunity to speak with you about your experience as well! Is there any chance we can speak over the phone or get in contact through email?

        The only difference between our experiences so far as I am aware at this moment is that I was told that I could not join until I had evidence that I had been off the medication for an entire 24 months!!! Not just the 12 months that you described!

      3. What medical literature are you reading that stimulants prescribed in ADHD treatment, such as amphetamines, are “non-habit forming”??? Amphetamines are well known to be some of the MOST addictive drugs on the planet, and are very prone to abuse. They are in fact known for being abused.. go to any college campus. There are kids nowadays that will crush and snort adderall for a high at parties. There’s a reason it’s a Schedule II Controlled Substance! By definition, it has a high potential for abuse and physical/psychological dependence. The whole theory around ADHD meds is to stimulate dopamine release to “compensate” for lower levels in those with the condition. Dopamine is literally your body’s reward system… drugs that stimulate your reward system.. they’re addictive! Few drugs do that as effectively as amphetamines.

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