By Tyanna Robinson
In the ongoing conversation about mental health and wellness, the Peace Corps has become a focal point in addressing the issue of stigma. The Peace Corps is an independent government agency aiming to provide sustainable solutions to the world’s humanitarian crises. It deploys volunteers to address challenges relating to agriculture, economic development, health, education, and the environment. To become a Peace Corps volunteer, applicants are required to undergo an extensive recruitment process in which they undergo medical screening. However, the health screening policy has come under fire as many have accused the program of discrimination against individuals with histories of mental health conditions.
The Peace Corps is the subject of an ongoing class-action lawsuit where the plaintiff alleges she was denied medical clearance based on a history of mental health challenges. In Doe v. Spahn, the plaintiff claims the Peace Corps offered her a job in February 2020 as a volunteer, but after completing a “Health History Form,” the organization denied her medical clearance. While the Peace Corps medical clearance policy holds that current and/or past engagement in mental health counseling alone is not a reason for medical non-clearance, the suit also includes nine other individuals whose invitations were also rescinded for mental health reasons revealing a problematic pattern.
The Peace Corps remains unwavering in its support and application of its current medical and health policy. They note that statutory responsibility falls upon the agency to provide any necessary medical care for volunteers during service. If an individual were to face a mental health crisis overseas, the agency may not be able to readily address the situation with the same care and resources that are more easily accessible in the United States. However, those challenging the policy express that rejection of this type has been demoralizing for applicants who consider why reasonable accommodations have not been implemented to make room for the growing number of individuals with a history of treatment or counseling. They also allege that these decisions were not made based on current medical knowledge, questioning whether the Peace Corps’ information used for decision-making is accurate and up-to-date.
Mental health advocates express growing concern about the healthcare system’s ability, at the legal and policy levels, to keep up with increasing numbers of individuals grappling with mental health challenges and those seeking treatment. While the Peace Corps encourages full disclosure of an applicant’s medical history to consider their health needs, the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental health make these issues harder to discuss despite the increase in mental health conditions among adults. Potential rejection from opportunities, relationships, jobs, etc. can make people fearful of being honest about their histories with mental health challenges. Therefore, the Peace Corps may see a decrease in support and applications as these health screening policies continue to alienate potentially qualified and motivated volunteers.