The featured photo is the public domain version of the Peace Corps logo that existed when I was a Volunteer. It has since been updated, unlike the Peace Corps’ mental healthcare policies. 😉
Friday, at last! I’ve been waiting for today all week, because it means that tomorrow, we’re out of here for about ten days. I’ve been eagerly awaiting our trip for some weeks now, even though the first three nights of it will be in Germany because it’s time to see the dentist. I don’t love going to the dentist, but I don’t hate it, either. At least my teeth get nice and clean.
Facebook is telling me that we went to the dentist at this time last year, too. But last year, we stayed at a luxury hotel in Baiersbronn, which is a very pretty town in the Black Forest. I remember being stressed, because Arran was newly diagnosed with lymphoma, and I was afraid he might decompensate while we were gone. But he pulled through fine, and afterwards, we started his chemo, which gave him another five months with us. That might not seem like a significant success, but five months is a long time to a dog. And it meant that when the end of Arran’s life finally came in March, we could both be there for him. He also made it very clear to us that he wanted to live.
I think our time in Czechia is going to be great fun. The hotels we’ve booked have all contacted us with final details. I hope we find lots of art, and I’m able to take plenty of photos. The Cannstatter Volksfest is also going on right now. I just tried on my Dirndl, and I can still get into it. But I don’t think I’m going to bring it with me, because it really needs to be dry cleaned. Also, I think Bill and I are probably too old and crotchety for Wasen, even though we usually go on Sunday afternoons, when it’s not so crowded. Maybe we’ll go to Ludwigsburg instead, and see some huge pumpkins. We always seem to miss the pumpkin festival.
Yesterday, I noticed an article in The New York Times (temporarily unlocked) about the Peace Corps being sued over their mental health policies. Regular readers might remember that I served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia for the Peace Corps from 1995 until 1997. Things have clearly changed a lot since my days as a Volunteer. In my day, you didn’t get your invitation to serve until you’d successfully passed the legal and medical clearances. From reading up on this lawsuit, I gather that prospective Volunteers can now get invited before they finish medical screenings. This policy is causing problems for a lot of people, hence the lawsuit.
According to the article in The New York Times, a group of three people, whose placement offers were rescinded over mental health treatment, have decided to sue the agency. They accuse the Peace Corps of “discriminating against applicants with disabilities in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination in programs receiving federal funds.” Further from the article:
The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, includes accounts from nine people whose Peace Corps invitations were rescinded for mental health reasons. The suit alleges that those decisions were made without considering reasonable accommodations or making individualized assessments based on current medical knowledge.
I was interested in this story because when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I totally suffered from clinical depression and anxiety. I did not get treatment for it until about a year after I left Armenia. In my case, depression and anxiety were chronic parts of my life that were so normal to me that I didn’t realize I was suffering as much as I had been for most of my life. It got pretty bad in 1998, when I was feeling really hopeless and worthless. Some of it was because of my service, but most of it had to do with genetics and having to live with my parents while I picked up my life.
Mental health treatment was a lifesaver and a game changer for me. It was a huge shock to me when we finally found the right antidepressant and I started feeling “normal”, for the first time. I stopped crying and hyperventilating at the drop of a hat. I stopped feeling worthless and hopeless. Indeed, four days after I took my first dose of Wellbutrin, I decided to go to graduate school, and I started taking decisive steps to make it happen. Within a few months, I had offers of admission to two universities.
I quit taking antidepressants in 2004. For the most part, I don’t miss taking them, although I gained weight when I got off of the drugs. I have been pretty stable, mentally speaking, for a long time. I’ve managed to finish two master’s degrees, and am about to celebrate 21 years of marriage to a great guy who treats me like gold.
However, after reading the article in the New York Times, as well as some anecdotes from other former Volunteers and applicants, I feel pretty sure that I would fail the medical part if I decided to reapply to the Peace Corps today, even though mentally, I’m a lot more stable. I am also a hell of lot more mature and experienced today, than I was in 1995. I’m sure I would be a better Volunteer today, in spite of my mental health treatment history.
I would probably fail the medical clearance due to having a history of mental health treatment, but I might also fail it for physical reasons. They gave me a lot of grief in 1995 because of my weight, which was less then than it is today. After sending me a nastygram about my weight, they did ultimately let me serve. I didn’t have any serious medical problems to speak of during those two years, nor have I had any in the 26 years following my service. I’ve also seen photos of recent Volunteers and it looks to me like maybe they’ve backed off somewhat from weight standards. Some of the people serving today are clearly bigger than I was in 1995.
The comments on this story are pretty divided. Quite a lot of people, including former Volunteers, think the Peace Corps should be very selective about allowing people with mental health histories to serve. They point to the fact that Volunteers are sent all over the world, and a lot of the countries they go to have very primitive healthcare facilities that can take hours to get to by public transportation. I got that.
However, I also know, from my own personal experience, that not every Volunteer lives in a jungle or a mud hut, nor are they all isolated from each other. Accommodations of all kinds vary widely in the countries where the Peace Corps serves. While certainly not every place has cell phone or Internet access, quite a lot of countries do have those technologies today. That can make treatment more feasible for Volunteers who need counseling. And in other countries, there’s really nothing easily available… so those places should get the healthiest Volunteers. Common sense, you see…
Armenia, where I served, was considered a “hardship” post in the 1990s. In those days, it really was a “true” Peace Corps location, although it wasn’t like the experiences someone might have in Africa or South America. Every country has its challenges, though… and some locations are tougher or more austere than others are. Armenia still has a Peace Corps program, although Volunteers don’t serve in the capital anymore. I was based in the capital, where I could get help somewhat easily if I needed it. I mean, I couldn’t even call someone across the street with my rotary dial phone, but I could easily walk or take a bus to the Peace Corps office. Armenia is the size of Maryland. If I’d been in a much larger country, it would have been a different story.
Granted, the Peace Corps is a vastly underfunded agency. Even though I know firsthand how valuable the work is, and how it helps foster trust and relations between US citizens and host country nationals, most Americans have no idea. I noticed a lot of people who clearly knew nothing about the Peace Corps opining on the article. A couple of people were bold enough to state that the Peace Corps is a waste of money, since the US shouldn’t be trying to “save the world”. They don’t understand that the Peace Corps has three goals:
I do think it’s prudent to screen potential Volunteers for health issues of all kinds. I also agree that serving in the Peace Corps is a privilege and an honor, and not a right to all US tax paying comers. BUT… I also know that any agency affiliated with the US government, including the military, has very antiquated policies regarding mental healthcare. And I think that ought to change. I think it will HAVE to change, because there’s been a lot of work done to destigmatize accessing mental healthcare in the United States. More people than ever are seeking services to treat minor mental health crises.
In 2007, when Bill was deployed to Iraq, I did a supposedly mandatory Exceptional Family Member Program screening (EFMP) because we were going to move to Germany. I was forced to join EFMP– a program that is supposed to allow commands to consider the “special” needs of family members before sending them to certain assignments. I remember being really upset about that situation, since the doctor who screened me said I could suffer mental health issues in Germany, as Bill could go “downrange” (and he was already downrange when I spoke to her). Then she said there was a shortage of mental health professionals in some areas. Duh… I have a master’s degree in social work. I could have gotten licensed and they could have hired me! I would have just needed to pass an exam and pay a fee. I wasn’t some 19 year old bride, with no experience or ability to take care of myself. But that is how I was treated.
In my case, the military’s EFMP screening was utter bullshit, and in the end, it wasn’t even a problem for us. The National Guard didn’t care about my history of depression, and they’d already cut Bill’s orders for Germany before I even got the screening (that wasn’t supposed to happen). It was a waste of time. I totally could have skipped the whole fucking thing, which really pissed me off. I felt like I was being punished for doing the responsible thing and getting help for my depression and anxiety, and then being honest about it for the EFMP screening. I can see by comments left on the article that people affected by Peace Corps’ mental health policy feel similarly.
It’s not a small ordeal to apply for Peace Corps service. In my case, the whole process took less than three months, but that was only because I applied in the 90s. There were a lot more slots to fill at that time, as eastern Europe and many former Soviet countries offered chances to serve. In my day, people were getting invited to countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, both eastern and western Russia, and the like. A lot of those programs have since closed, which means there aren’t as many programs that need Volunteers. That means it can take a lot longer for a person to be accepted and sent off somewhere.
But consider that there’s a lengthy application and interview, you have to have references– I think it’s three now, but it was six when I was a Volunteer– and you have to clear legal and medical. The medical exam is very thorough and arduous. I was fortunate enough to get mine at a military treatment facility /sarcasm, although at least it was provided free of charge! If you don’t have health insurance or the money to pay for the physical and dental screening, it can get pretty pricey. I also remember having to go to the county jail in my Virginia hometown of Gloucester and get fingerprinted. That was an experience!
Peace Corps staff members now apparently send invitations to applicants before they’ve passed all of the qualifications, which means that offers get rescinded after people have told their friends and families, sold or given away their possessions, quit their jobs, given up their housing, and made other life altering decisions. Consider also that many people who serve in the Peace Corps often tend to be high achievers, and having an offer rescinded can be personally devastating to them. The rejection, in and of itself, can cause mental health issues.
I read that this new policy of inviting people who aren’t completely cleared came about in 2012 or so, also because of the Rehabilitation Act. I’ve also read that the policy changed because Peace Corps is “competing” with graduate programs and jobs, so they have to make these offers before the applicants decide to go to graduate school or take a paid position. I suppose there could be some truth to that explanation, too.
Anyway… given what has happened in the world since 2020, I can’t imagine that the Peace Corps can continue this practice of screening out people who have sought mental health treatment. I have read that some people were successful in appealing decisions to rescind offers, although it doesn’t seem to be the norm. But– today’s youth have had to deal with a whole host of shit that my generation didn’t have to deal with– from 9/11, to school shootings, to two wars and terrorism, to COVID-19– they have really been through some tough stuff. They have also come of age at a time when people are being encouraged to seek mental health care if they need it. I think the Peace Corps will find that the pool of applicants with no documented mental health history whatsoever will eventually become very scarce.
I do wish the plaintiffs luck with their lawsuit. It’s not because I think the Peace Corps should be sending anyone and everyone out into remote areas “where there is no doctor” (heh heh hehe… IYKYK). I just think the Peace Corps– like the US military– need to reevaluate their policies regarding mental health treatment. There’s a big difference between someone who gets counseling for situational depression and takes medication for awhile, and someone who is bipolar, has a serious eating disorder, is an alcoholic, or has schizophrenia (and some of those people do manage to slip into service, anyway). They shouldn’t punish people for being honest in their medical screenings, nor should people who do the mature thing and ask for help be penalized for taking care of themselves. And for Christ’s sakes, go back to offering invitations to service AFTER the applicant has jumped through all the hoops, so they don’t uproot their entire lives for NOTHING!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Not a day passes that I don’t think of my time in Armenia and how much it changed my life, opened my eyes to the world, and altered my perspectives. I was not one who dreamt my whole life of serving in the Peace Corps, but I’m so grateful I did. I would have really hated to have missed that opportunity simply because I very responsibly sought mental healthcare for depression and anxiety before my service, instead of afterwards.
And I dare say the people I served in Armenia would have missed out on knowing me, too… a few of them even liked me. 😉 I look forward to seeing them soon.
Well, that about does it for today. Time to get on with my Friday. Have a good one, folks.