If a cadet at the Air Force Academy is dangerously depressed, how would his or her parent know? Why wouldn’t one of his or her “4,000 bodyguards” recognize the situation?
Two parents of different cadets, commenting on my blog post, “Empathy for Why a Senior Cadet Might Take his Own Life,” expressed these concerns. In poetic fashion, one wrote, “Could I hear it if he asked [for help]?”
Unfortunately, I do not have encouraging answers. I will offer my opinion on why these parents’ fears are valid.
First, let me get the caveats out of the way. I do not know C1C Marc Henning or his family, and I do not know how or why he died. A parent might be marginally prepared to hear that a cadet died while flying, or parachuting, doing something her child loved to do, but there is no preparation at all for dying in a dorm room. My heart aches for you.
Next, there are several counseling services available to cadets and their families. This list is from the Academy’s Public Affairs Office press release:
Counseling services are available from several agencies, including the Academy chaplains at 333-2636, the 10th Medical Group’s Mental Health Clinic at 333-5177, Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 and Military Family Life consultants at 719-358-1468. In the cadet squadrons, counseling is also available from the Peak Performance Center at 333-2107, as well as each squadron’s PEER representatives and the PEER hotline at 330-5929
Many of the resources offered in my blog’s sidebar are only available to Persian Gulf veterans and families. If anybody reading this knows of a nonmilitary, non-government counseling service available for cadets, please tell me about it in a comment.
Finally, my direct experience is thirty years old. I will share my insights anyway, because my perception, I hope, is clearer than when I was a cadet.
Cadets edit what they say and who they say it to. Even though I was not very “stract,” or military, I was a naive, straight-arrow long before I went to the zoo. I assumed that everyone there was like me, and nobody ever enlightened me. Both my upperclassmen and my peers protected my innocence. It is only well after graduation that I learned of serious exploits or troubles that my friends got into as cadets. Cadets protect the image that they think others hold. They only admit their vulnerabilities to people they are extremely close to.
As want-to-be pilots, cadets learn to distrust the medical personnel. The Academy’s doctors and technicians obviously care for the cadets, but they are the dream-destroyers. You have a fever and you vomited? They will restrict you to bed rest, even if you are failing a course or you are were promised a “privilege” or were scheduled to go gliding. More seriously, they determine if your vision has deteriorated, your sitting height is too tall, or you need some medication that is not approved by the FAA. Doctors and medical technicians are the people who mark a cadet non-pilot qualified. This fear of doctors is propagated by all pilots, including some mentors of cadets. I never knew any pilot, much less a pilot-wannabe, who would tell a doctor he or she is depressed.
What are the signs that a cadet needs help? Self-destructive behavior is the easiest clue, but it may be guised due to the structured environment. A big increase in drinking, a sudden decrease in studying, even when facing failure, or deliberately violating regulations in such a way that the cadet is guaranteed to be caught and punished, are all self-destructive behaviors when trapped inside a military school. When reading my diary, I noticed that I recorded a dramatic change in the personality of a cadet I had been close to. Along with behavior changes, my friend deliberately started changing physical appearance. At the time, the cadet brushed it off, and my eighteen year-old self, too concerned with my own athletics and academics, accepted my friend’s explanations at face-value. Twenty-eight years later I called the person, who then told me a dramatic secret that my classmate had hidden for decades. A cadet’s peers may act as bodyguards in a direct fight, but they may not have the insight to perceive that their friend’s self-destructive behavior hides deeper issues.
Hopefully, your sons and daughters have extremely close friends who they will admit their troubles to, and who, in turn, are courageous enough to “turn them in” to counseling services when they need help. Hopefully, just telling their concerns to a friend will be cathartic enough to alleviate the worst part of a depression. I used to call my mother and cry on the phone to her for an hour every Sunday. My mother, who had pushed me to apply to the Academy, always begged me to quit, come home, and then enroll at Arizona State University. Somehow, that was enough to make me realize that I still had options and choices, and that I wanted to stay and finish the challenge I had started.
In summary, the only clues I know a cadet might manifest when deeply depressed is self-destructive behavior. Self-destructive behavior looks different inside a military academy than it does in a typical environment. Parents and peers should be alert to repeated, deliberate changes in appearance (hair, tattoos, radically different and constantly changing off-duty clothing styles); dramatic changes in the amount of studying, personality, or drinking; becoming accident-prone; or violating regulations that almost guarantee getting caught. The only aid I know of that a nonprofessional might give, beyond walking the cadet into the professional’s office, is to illustrate for the cadet that other options exist. The cadet does not have to graduate, and can still have a happy, productive, meaningful career and life. There are other options for becoming a pilot. There are treatments for depression that do not involve pharmaceuticals. The Mayo Clinic uses acupuncture to treat anxiety and depression, and Tricare Standard even pays for it. The cadet can ask the professional for a diagnosis that indicates the illness is transitory and situation-dependent.
One Last Big Caveat: I AM NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL AND I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO GIVE MEDICAL ADVICE. MY OPINION IS JUST THAT–IT IS NOT BASED ON ANY STUDIES. MY OPINION IS ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCES AND PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS.