Mental health: To go or not to go

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

The clinic buildings themselves aren't scary, but add the words ‘mental health,’ and most people will avoid them like they contain tigers on the loose. That's why the 432nd Wing Human Performance Team was stood up -- to alleviate that stigma, provide help and have easily accessible trained mental health professionals.

Some service members might have a false impression of the mental health clinic as a dark hole, where clearances are lost and careers are ruined. Capt. David, a 432nd Wing remotely piloted aircraft pilot, had this very concern as he prepared to make an appointment.

In the previous months, David battled depression on a daily basis, and his motivation slowly wilted away until he found it a struggle to even find the energy to enjoy playtime with his children.

"I love my kids with all my heart," he said. "It just got to a point where I was under so much stress and felt so depressed. I didn't want to do much of anything."

David’s troubles began during a deployment. As if being away from his family, missing birthdays and holidays wasn't enough, he faced problems with his daily duties.

"While on deployment it felt as if I wasn't a part of the team and while I was doing great work, for some reason I had a negative reputation,” he said. “On top of that, I was having some marital issues.”

His frustrations seemed to follow him home, opportunities to make instructor pilot or flight commander passed him by and he saw junior officers with less experience fill these slots instead.

"I felt I was getting ignored for no reason," he said. "I tried my best, I did great work, but I was being bad-mouthed and I didn't know why."

Everything seemed to keep piling up: the daily struggles of shift work, lack of sleep and time away from family, combined with a million other things. His mind started wandering to a dark place.

"I thought about committing suicide," he said. "I couldn't do that to my family. I also remembered hearing that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I knew deep down my feelings of despair would subside. For the time of despair, it really hurt."

David and his wife decided he needed to get help immediately. While he was still hesitant for fear of career repercussions, he decided that was the least of his worries.

"I finally had to accept that I was most likely going to lose my clearance and not be able to fly,” he said. “At that point I knew I just needed help."

David sought out the chaplain for guidance, where he learned about the other services of the human performance team. The HPT is unique to Creech Air Force Base, and is comprised of the chaplain corps, an operational psychologist, an operational physiologist and a flight medicine doctor. The HPT aims to help Airmen in the spiritual, psychological, physical, emotional and intellectual areas of wellness.

The chaplain determined David needed psychological help and referred him to the operational psychologist. David met with him for weekly sessions, but, ultimately, it wasn't enough.

"(The psychologist) recommended I go to the mental health clinic," he said. "I was still really nervous. I really didn't want to be put on (duty not to include flying) status."

After the nerve-wracking visit to the clinic, David was diagnosed with depression and his fear of being DNIF became a reality.

"When they put me on DNIF, I was angry," he said. "I was angry at the chaplain, the psychologist, just everyone."

While he was no longer on flying status, David retained his clearance and was transferred from his flying squadron to the 432nd Operations Support Squadron as the chief of operational planning and exercises.

His frustration and uneasiness started to subside. His new assignment gave him the opportunity to support the operations rather than fly them.

"The change gave me a much needed break," he said. "Now I work a normal day shift with weekends and holidays off, which let me spend some much needed quality time with my wife and kids."

The new mission, coupled with his ongoing treatment, brought about a positive change.

"I felt refreshed; I have more self-confidence, self-esteem, and I'm more sociable and motivated at work," he said. "I even won company grade officer of the quarter for my squadron and I'm getting praise from my bosses. It's been a total change."

If not for the advice and counseling he received from the HPT, as well as the support from his family, it's possible he wouldn't be here to see this positive change in his career.

"I was very hesitant (about) following the advice from the HPT to go to mental health," he said. "In the end, they were right and I'm very thankful to them and my family."

In light of his new success, David talks about the HPT and shares his experiences to help others who may be going through similar struggles.

"The HPT is a great tool for Creech and ultimately the entire Air Force," he said. "Having all of the members together in one team and each one having high-level clearances, means they can go into the squadrons and talk to Airmen about how they're doing. They're unique because we're unique."

David also wants Airmen to know that even if they're on a medication, they can apply for a waiver to get back to flying.

"I personally know a pilot who is on a depression medication and was able to get back to flying," he said.

"If anyone is going through hard times and needs help, don't hesitate, because in most cases your career won't be affected and you will actually improve it," he said

David is now back on track both in his personal and professional life and currently has a waiver in the works to get back on flying status.

"I'm so thankful for everyone who has been there to help me and I'm really excited to get back to flying," he said.