ADHD in the Military

Recently, a previous patient of mine contacted me to ask if I could fill out a medical form for him, as he is in his 20′s and he is applying to the Canadian Armed Forces. I was surprised he is already in his 20′s (time flies!), and I started to wonder about how ADHD may impact people’s ability to get into the military. This young man actually had depression when he was 16 years old, so I won’t be able to report back to you how the Canadian Military handled his case (with respect to ADHD, I mean).

Searching online for ADHD and the military – I found a couple of resources that may help. The first is an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In this article from 1998, the author summarizes information from one scientific article, as well as information gathered from military sources.

A second resource came from a forum post, where the author shared his experience having had ADHD when he was younger, and then joining the US Air Force. Other people have joined the conversation, and you can find that here.

The ultimate question that will come up for someone considering the military is – can I get in if I have ADHD?

The short answer is: ‘maybe’.

Based on the sources mentioned above – it seems unlikely that one can get into the Army, Air Force, Navy and particularly the Marines (they are noted to be the most strict) if they have to take a daily medication. This applies to a thyroid condition, diabetes, or any medical condition that requires daily medicine.

This would apply to ADHD – if you take daily medicine. The articles suggest getting off your medication for approximately 1 year prior to applying to the military. If you are able to function well without the medication, then you may be eligible to enlist. The reason for this rule is that requiring a daily medication may present a risk in a combat situation.

Other criteria for the military include the fact that one could be excluded for a personality or behavioral disorder. If one has ADHD or ADD and has had numerous troubles associated with it – including substance abuse, trouble with the law, associated depression or suicidality, etc. – that may make it harder to enlist in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.

One other key point mentioned in the article is that recruiters may or may not share accurate information with potential recruits. This is concerning – and suggests that an interested person should pursue information from multiple sources before feeling that he/she has an accurate answer.

It is important to note that the best reference I found (the American Academy of Pediatrics article written above) was from prior to September 11, 2001. It is an article from 1998. Now that the US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Canada is in Afghanistan), it is possible that the rules for obtaining a ‘waiver for ADHD’ may be different now. Again – it is worth reviewing this with a recruiter (or two or three).

It is my belief that people with ADHD can do extremely well in the structure of the military. In these times, their contribution can be most welcomed – if the military welcomes them.

Will the military welcome people diagnosed with ADHD?

The short answer is ‘maybe’.

I am hopeful that those of you reading this article will share your experiences, and help to update the policies described above to what is happening now (this is being written in August 2009). We have had a very productive discussion on this blog about the FAA requirements for pilots with ADHD, and I hope that this post can develop into a productive discussion to help people seeking answers to this question.

**Addendum – a further internet search found this article, on the ADDitudeMag site, entitled: Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You! It describes more up to date information about the military. It notes that there are new standards in place. The article shares:

“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. “

This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I think not enough.

Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

Best,

Dr. Kenny

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Comments

  1. I spent 11 years in the British military and was recently (honorably) discharged as I hadn’t disclosed that I had been diagnosed with ADHD back in the early eighties as a boy.

    This came about due to a depressive episode in which I was told to see a psychologist. I was asked about any prior depressive episodes and explained I had been in care as a child and was diagnosed with ADHD back when it wasn’t so prevalent.

    I was told I would be discharged under a “defect in enlistment” procedure, as if the Army had known about my diagnosis on enlistment, I wouldn’t have gotten in in the first place.

    Now I’m not hugely bummed by this fact, as I have a chance to sample life as a civilian (I joined when I was 17), but I did do well. I rose to E-6 in 8 years, which in the British military is ahead of promotion schedule by 4 (they expect 2 years at each rank in my trade) and had the time of my life.

    My advice to potential recruits not on medication is to not disclose your ADHD, join up, pin your ears back and listen throughout basic training, no matter how hard it is and the basic way of life in the military is very good treatment for ADHD.

    I feel many, many times better about a lot of the issues I experienced as a teenager and while I still have very common issues such as relationship problems and anger issues, I have a handle on them about 80% of the time and the other 20% I have ways to deal with myself, like taking a drive to the local lake to calm down and then return to talk things over. It helps that my partner is very understanding. I also studied psychology to associate level in an effort to help myself, which is a valuable tool for self-help in my opinion….except 8 years on and I’ve forgotten most of it haha.

  2. Hi Paul.

    I am a 17 year old female and I have ADHD and I am currently taking Ritalin to treat the symptoms of ADHD. I am really interested in joining the Australian Defence Force, but there is no information on whether a person who is diagnosed with ADHD is permitted to join. My ADHD is controlled perfectly with my medication and my condition is a mild one with behaviour. Unfortunately, when off medication my concentration is my main problem. I am much more prone to laugh at serious situations and be distracted by the stupidest things. From what I have gathered, you must not be on any medication if you have been diagnosed with ADHD when joining the ADF. Is this true? Wouldn’t it be better if a subject of ADHD did take medication because then obviously there authenticity when on the job will be fairly trusted with the prescribed drug they have had years of experience with?

    If you have any information that could benefit me or some more advice about ADHD I would be more then delighted to hear it.

    Thank you.

  3. Renee,

    I joined the British Army, not the ADF and served for 11 years without medication. I have to say that my issues are mainly concentration, memory retention and impulsive behavior. I have a lot of problems in personal relationships also. As far as medication goes, it may work for you, but you would have to be certain to get e large enough prescription for the period of your training, exercises and deployments, as you can often be away from a doctor’s office for extended periods of time and you don’t want to be starting on and off medicine over and over again, although that is purely my opinion, not a scientific fact.

    As I said before, I think people should just not mention they have ADHD, as t has a stigma attached to it which is mostly unfounded, much like how ADHD used to be seen as a moral disease rather than an actual disorder. I served with pride and had a great time right until the end and the military set me up for the rest of my life. I feel like life is now very easy compared to how it was prior to joining the Army, as I’ve experienced a lot tougher and harder situations than if I had been a civilian until this age (turning 30 shortly) and therefore find life’s challenges much easier. I still struggle with ADHD in a bad way and am probably going to try medication shortly, if only to do better in my marriage than I currently do.

    If you want anymore advice, you can ask the site administrator to pass you my email here and I will gladly talk to you in private. I’m not entirely happy about pouring my life onto the we lol.

  4. Paul: My 18-yr-old son was recently diagnosed with ADHD. I have heard of the relationship problems associated with it, and would like to hear more about specific relationship difficulties that my son may encounter. We, too, don’t like airing our private lives in public. Thank you for your help.

  5. Loi, there are a lot of well-publicized relationship issues that people with ADHD suffer with. In fact, there are also many to be found about the spouse who suffers with an ADHD partner. Both ways, ADHD causes a lot of issues. But it needn’t be a huge drama, as long as you have a partner who is mature and will help you help yourself.

    In my life, ADHD has been a huge issue in relationships past and present, but as I’ve worked the through the kinks in my marriage I have also run across the old-fashioned issues that many a couple deal with, such as the stubborn/lazy/untidy/forgetful partner, the basic issue of personality clashes/differences and any cultural/religious/political differences, etc. The biggest issue I have had to deal with, has been weeding out issues directly caused by my ADHD and those that are not caused by my ADHD.

    This isn’t as simple as it seems, though, as ADHD sufferers often have trouble identifying their own behavior. This can lead to insecurity and under-confidence. With help from my spouse, I have managed to identify and most importantly, acknowledge, my bad traits and could then work on trying to fix them. I now track them on an excel spreadsheet, otherwise I’d forget them! Then I asked my spouse to rate how bad each issue was for her to live with and I did the same. In the 6 months that have passed since I wrote my initial comment here, my relationship “rating” has increased for the better by quite a lot, as we make sure to discuss how we’re doing as much as we can.

    So from my side, I feel like I am working hard and making good ground. However, the years of bad behavior take a toll on a spouse and I am now faced with challenges associated with my previous behavior issues. For example, my spouse often will call me out on “A”, whereas now I have worked on changing “A”, she has a hard time believing “A” no longer is a major issue for us and she still does things a certain way to shield herself from “A”‘s fallout. This in turn frustrates me, as why can’t she see that I’ve changed and no longer have an issue with “A” (unless I’m at the extreme of an emotion string–I’ll explain below). I feel like I’m trying hard and she can’t see my effort…

    In the above example, “A” could be anything that has affected us in the past. An emotion string is something I have realized about myself and I believe it affects other ADHD sufferers a lot.

    Essentially, I visualize my emotions as a balloon that can pop and I’m a small string with a needle attached to the end of it, sitting in the middle of the balloon. An emotion moves the string towards the edge of the balloon and the stronger the emotion, the further it goes. When my emotional condition is normal, I’m in the center of the balloon and have control of my emotion string. There is no chance of me bursting the balloon. When I’m extremely excited, I’m moving towards the edge of the balloon on the excitement string. This means that I focus less on keeping straight and more on the emotion I am feeling. The balloon may burst at any time, as my impulsive behavior could cause me to say something I don’t mean, as I didn’t stop to think it over before blurting it out. The same goes for any other extreme of a particular emotion, such as anger, sadness or jealousy. So when I’m stable, I control my ADHD issues and example “A” will more than likely not happen again. As I go further along any emotion string, the needle will burst the balloon and we are likely to end up in an argument because of my behavior. This is hugely frustrating to me, as it then proves my spouses fear right, that I will relapse into previous behavior patterns even though all I want to do is be a good husband and allow my spouse to enjoy her life. Nothing more, nothing less. So right now, I’m working on controlling my emotions to keep me stable as much as I can. As I work through this, I realize how hard it is and how, in fact, how absolutely debilitating ADHD can be. But the key most certainly is to keep at it and have a strong and caring partner who is willing to help you gain ground in your fight.

    I realize I’ve just written half a book and aired my laundry a little, even though I said I wouldn’t, but if it helps just one person realize they can change themselves for the better and that change isn’t bad, then it will have been worth it. If you’ve actually read this far, congratulations!

    Finally, you should also take a look at http://www.adhdmarriage.com/. It is another great ADHD resource and has helped me a lot in the last 6 months as I’ve read other people’s issues like mine above and realized I’m not alone.

  6. I’m in the Canadian forces and have ADHD…. But recently (like 2mths ago) have been diagnosed in the army so they treat me very well and were working thru the process.

  7. Hi Kenny

    I am CF member myself and I suspect that I have ADD,

    I am kind of curious on how the military reacted. If you wouldn’t mind can you e-mail me at cfmbr@hotmail.com to discuss further.

    I hope I get a reply.

    Thank You

    Denis

  8. hey guys i have ADHD 36 of age and i was on concerta for a year now and it help me a lot, i am able to think better and able to read books as i can’t before. i can focus well and my short term memory is better! now i feel i can go back to to school and i would like to join the canadian army! but from reading others comments its don’t look like i would able to go with ADHD! but i wonder if i can join if i go as a cook can someone give me info about that thanks!

  9. Hey my name is chase and I am 15 teen I really want to go in the air force but I have. ADHD I figured out when I was 5 years old and I just really would like to know can I go in to the air force and me as a kid what should I start doing so I can go into the air force please comment thank. U

    • Do your final year at school off medication this should show ur capability to function normaly and is a big plus in their books. Just a heads up, when I went to join adf as a pilot i was told ADHD on any level is a complete NO for aircrew so if ur all g with out meds don’t tell them. Since I was little I have always wanted to be a pilot in the adf and being told u can’t is pretty heart breaking. However I believe I was miss diagnosed and will appeal it

  10. I am very interested in the topic of the US Military (Marines) and those with ADD. My son is 20 and wants to enlist in Marines. he was just notified by a recruiter he must be off meds for a year. I’m not entirely clear on what happens after he’s been off for a year. I’d really like to hear from those who may have gone through this process. He’s putting all his eggs in one basket and I don’t think he could handle the disappointment if after a year, they still won’t accept him. Is there any new information on this topic or can anyone share their experience (good or bad). He was diagnosed the end of his jr year in hs. The meds definitely help him with focus issues and his grades improved after being on Vyvanse but he also thinks he can function ok off the meds. Thanks in advance for any feedback.

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