Mental Health

A scientific case against “Don’t ask, don’t tell”

Everyone would agree that in order to safely and successfully complete their mission, the men and women who serve in the military need to be both physically and mentally healthy. As Congress considers legislation that would end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, a lot of attention has been paid to the potential risk to members of the military associated with ending the policy. Most experts and members of the military seem to agree that the risk of ill effects for soldiers is low. What about the risks associated with not ending the policy? Scientific research suggests that the risk of keeping the policy in place is potentially high.

By Clay Routledge, Ph.D.
Created Dec 6 2010 – 6:11am

Everyone would agree that in order to safely and successfully complete their mission, the men and women who serve in the military need to be both physically and mentally healthy. As Congress considers legislation that would end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, a lot of attention has been paid to the potential risk to members of the military associated with ending the policy. Most experts and members of the military seem to agree that the risk of ill effects for soldiers is low. What about the risks associated with not ending the policy? Scientific research suggests that the risk of keeping the policy in place is potentially high.

The arguments for ending the policy have largely been focused on philosophical and moral grounds (e.g., if gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are willing to serve and die for their country they should not have to hide or lie about their sexual orientation). These are good arguments. However, there are also legitimate health and safety risks associated with keeping the policy.

All individuals who serve in the military, especially in times of war, face a number of stressors that are risk factors for mental illness. And compromised mental health is not only problematic for the individual, it also threatens the broader military mission because wars are not fought by individuals acting alone, they are fought by highly interdependent groups of soldiers. Thus, it is critical for all soldiers to be functioning at their best so they can work well as a cohesive unit. However, gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers have an additional psychological burden as a result of the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And research conducted in the general population suggests that this additional psychological burden may put gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers at greater risk for mental health problems which, again, could compromise our military’s ability to function at its best.

For example, in the general population, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals have higher prevalence of mental disorders, including substance abuse, than heterosexuals. And the cause of this heightened risk appears to be stress and anxiety associated with discrimination (at school, in the workplace, etc) and lack of social integration. For example, in one study, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals who reported being discriminated against were at four times greater risk of having a substance abuse disorder than gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals who reported no discrimination. This comparison is important because it highlights discrimination (and the resulting stress), as opposed to sexual orientation, as the risk factor for substance abuse. In other words, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals face greater distress-causing discrimination than heterosexuals and it is this discrimination that puts them at higher risk for mental illness.

A number of studies indicate that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals experience greater incidents of verbal and physical abuse as well as greater feelings of social exclusion than heterosexuals. The problem with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and other discriminatory policies is that they provide institutional grounds for prejudicial beliefs regarding sexual orientation. In public polls, many American will express not having negative views towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people. However, if there is a powerful institution (i.e., the military) that says it is okay for heterosexuals to be open about their orientation, but not okay for anyone else, this sends a message that there is something inherently wrong with those who are not heterosexual. This in itself leads to added stress for non-heterosexual soldiers (and likely civilians as well). Also, this discriminatory policy at some level, even if not explicitly, affirms the mistreatment of these individuals. That is, this policy suggests that non-heterosexuals have something they should hide and we all know if you have to hide something from others it is typically because it is undesirable or morally questionable. However, this forced secrecy does not appear to work as many soldiers report that it is well known in a unit who is homosexual or bisexual. If this is true, then the policy does not do what it was intended to do but instead tells non-heterosexuals that they have something they should hide and tells everyone else that there is something wrong with these individuals. All this does then is create distress and potentially compromise the mental health of gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers who are already facing enough stress in a warzone.

People may have different opinions on the morality of sexual orientation. What cannot be denied, however, is the scientific data. The military always has and always will have gay, lesbian and bisexual persons serving in the ranks. And we are putting everyone at risk when we have discriminatory policies that target them and threaten their psychological health.

 

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