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Battle for Inclusion: Concern for Young Cadets Quitting Meds

The Bugle App

Amy Molloy

01 June 2024, 3:38 AM

Battle for Inclusion: Concern for Young Cadets Quitting MedsAustralian Government Department of Defence/CPL David Gibbs.

Every week, at Shellharbour Airport and locations across Australia, over 28,000 teenagers aged between 12 and 18 gather for a youth development program with a difference. The Australian Defence Force Cadets (ADF Cadets) offers young people skills in leadership and resilience, and a pathway to start a career in the Defence Force.

Parents are concerned, however; by pressure felt by young Cadets to stop taking medication prescribed for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. 

“I was happy when my son joined the Cadets,” a mum from Kiama told The Bugle. “A month later, he came home and announced he wanted to join the Royal Australian Air Force when he finished high school – it was great to see him so inspired.”

There was, however; a caveat to his plan. He had discovered that he would have to be “off” his ADHD medication for two years before he applied for the Royal Australian Air Force. As a result, he stopped taking his medication, which, in part, had been prescribed to help him focus during his exams.

At present, a diagnosis of ADHD is not a barrier to a teenager joining the ADF Cadets, although medical conditions must be noted on their Cadet profile. But eligibility for the ADF, including the Air Force and the Navy, is far less certain. 

Australian Government Department of Defence/PTE Alfred Stauder.

The career website for the ADF states: "Reaching the necessary medical and fitness requirements for the Navy, Army or Air Force for entry is well within most people’s capability."

However, a thorough medical examination is required and, when it comes to particular medical conditions, the career site states, “There's not one answer for all, as the outcome depends on individual circumstances.”

It’s ambiguous and, as a result, young Cadets are turning to Google — a rabbit hole of potential misinformation. In posts on the online forums, Quora and Reddit, Australians with ADHD who have allegedly attempted to join the ADF — and been declined — share tips on how to downplay symptoms and hide a diagnosis.

When a teenager from Kiama asked his pediatrician for clarification, he was told, it is “very difficult” to be accepted into the ADF with ADHD, and that he would need to be off his medication for 24 months to start the enlisting process. 

This is in line with the requirements of the New Zealand Defence Force, which states that, “in general, any applicant who requires regular or long-term medication (contraception excluded) will be unfit for service.” The concern is, they may not be able to access medication in a deployment situation. 

With Kiama’s close proximity to HMAS Albatross, many local teenagers have aspirations to join the Royal Australian Navy. A local mum, whose teenage son is considering “weaning off” medication prescribed for autism because he wants to enlist, admits this is a controversial topic. 

“I don’t think the Defence Force is a safe space for people who should be medicated and aren’t,” she says. “Legislation needs to catch up with countries who are making progress in this area.”

Australian Government Department of Defence/LACW Emma Schwenke.

The 2024 National Defence Strategy has called for a “widening of eligibility criteria” to enable more people to join the ADF. It’s a necessary step as the ADF faces a recruitment crisis.

In an interview with Sky News, Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie revealed there is a “lot to do” to improve the ADF, because they are “about 5,000 under strength.” There have been reports that the ADF will change 15 medical criteria, which can disqualify recruits, including acne, braces and some mental health conditions. 

The teenagers and their parents who spoke to The Bugle say all they want is some clarity. “It’s impossible to find information,” said a 15-year-old, who dreams of becoming a pilot, and is weighing up coming off his medication or choosing a different career path. 

Doug van Gelder works for the Australian Spatial Analytics (ASA) — a social enterprise with a mission to increase workforce participation for neurodiverse people. Since 2020, ASA has provided careers in the geospatial and engineering professions for over 150 young neurodivergent adults. 

“Australia is experiencing severe skills shortages,” says van Gelder. “Defence needs to consider ‘non-deployable’ status for people with ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions so they can scale to meet the challenges today’s unsettled world brings.” 

He gives the example of people with colour blindness, or ‘significant colour deficiency’, who can join the ADF, although their “employment streams” are restricted and they can only work in certain environments.

“Similarly, people on ADHD medication that supports their function can be assigned similar roles that minimise the ‘risk’ of deployment without medication,” says van Gelder.  

“In regards to coming off ADHD medication, these medications help with everyday life. It makes no sense for young adults to effectively be forced to accept self-harm by coming off their medications.”

Australian Government Department of Defence/CPL David Gibbs.

A Defence spokesperson told The Bugle: “The application process should not deter candidates from seeking medical advice and treatment for their medical conditions. Defence considers every ADF candidate’s medical circumstances individually. A current or past history of ADHD or autism spectrum disorder does not necessarily exclude candidates from entry.”


They added: “Defence continues to review and amend its medical entry standards in line with new information as it becomes available to Defence medical professionals.”