In an effort to prevent sexual assault, suicide, racism and extremism amongst the ranks, cadets, staff and faculty gathered at Michie Stadium March 30 to participate in the Honorable Living Day event where they learned to develop skills that can assist them from potential negative stressors and move toward individual and organizational goals at West Point.
Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams opened the event by addressing the audience about the importance of living honorably and providing cadets with resources to help them lead a flourishing life at West Point and throughout their tenure as officers.
Moreover, the keynote speaker, Dr. Judy Saltzberg from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, gave cadets advice on how to effectively deal with negative stressors. Saltzberg spoke virtually with cadets and provided them with many techniques and methods on coping with mental and physical stress as well as depression, relationship issues or anxiety.
“Just last week, we came together to discuss the harmful effects of extremism in our ranks. These previous discussions helped us understand how to live honorably by treating each other with dignity and respect,” Williams said. “We explored how negative interactions with our teammates can harm others. However, these behaviors we've explored so far have been outward with how we live honorably in our interactions with others. Today, we’re going to look inward at our personal well-being. Those things that help you flourish but are not always readily apparent to those around us.”
Williams explained that doing what’s right while maintaining a positive attitude is what encompasses honorable living. Although it’s a sensible moral virtue to live by, it’s not always easy to uphold even when everything is going well for you, he said.
It becomes harder to sustain a positive mental attitude when you’re physically worn down, emotionally drained, mentally exhausted, lonely, stressed or afraid. Moreover, learning how to live one’s life honorably leads to living their best life and can help circumvent these negative emotions, Williams added.
“Holistic wellness enables individual flourishing and honorable living. Holistic wellness is more than physical wellness,” Williams said. “It is easy to focus on physical wellness, because it’s more visible, but mental, emotional and spiritual wellness can be more difficult to maintain, which we generally don’t think about these aspects of wellness, because we may think these issues are too personal — that it’s a sign of weakness to need help in these areas. Asking for help to deal with emotional or mental issues is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.”
Williams said it’s likely that many cadets know someone struggling with mental health or may know someone who took their own life due to lack of support or empathy. However, there has been an increase over the past few years of Soldiers from all walks of life who have expressed their stories about the struggles they underwent mentally and physically and how they are thriving today because they courageously sought out help.
“Our intent for today’s Honorable Living Day is threefold: to educate you on the resources available here to support and build healthy and strong relationships, to provide you some new skills for your toolkits that you can use to defend yourself from the potential negative effects of stressors as you move toward your individual and organizational goals, and to dispel any myths and provide the facts about behavioral health, and its impact to commissioning and military service,” Williams said. “Today, some of your fellow cadets are going to share their personal struggles with you, and how they overcame these struggles, they are joined by a panel of subject matter experts who will share important information about various areas of wellness, and the resources available to help you achieve holistic wellness.”
Col. Nicholas Gist, Department of Physical Education director, centered his ‘living well’ perspective on the importance of exercise and how it can alleviate stressors. Essentially, the focus is training the mind to make physical fitness a professional habit that can guide one out of a stressful situation, he said.
“I will convey a relevant example of growth in the domain of physical fitness. Muscle hypertrophy is the hallmark physiological adaptation to resistance exercise if the ingredients of progression overload and regularity are applied over a time period that includes proper nutrition, hydration and recovery,” Gist said. “More simply put the adaptation to weightlifting is increased skeletal muscle size. The Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands principle postulate that the body will change based upon the stressors placed on it. These tools for managing stress become part of our positive professional habits in skills like goal setting, problem solving, assertive communication and positive relationships.”
Subsequently, a select few courageous cadets gave their personal testimonials that focused on suicide, sexual assault and sexual orientation discrimination, among other pressing issues. Members from the SME panel followed the testimonials with advice on how to deal with those classifications of stress and expounded on the facts and myths on having a growth mindset, suicide, sexual assault, racism and extremism.
Dr. Priya Mittal, director of the Military and Family Life Counseling Program at West Point, provided cadets with information on receiving counseling on a wide variety of issues that may be causing immense stress and or negative thoughts.
Mittal added the problems could range from family issues from back home to relationship issues at West Point. Stress can also come from academics or athletics. Cadets can also visit the MFLC site and discuss their perspectives on wellness and the misconceptions.
“Anything that’s not a mental health emergency is something that you can come and talk to your doctor about, and if we’re not the right resource for you, we can absolutely help you figure out what program best fits your needs,” Mittal said. “The MFLC is also a military-wide program. That means we work with all active-duty service members, National Guardsmen, Reservists and their families across all branches of service at every installation throughout the world. Not only is this a resource that you’ll use for your time at West Point, it’s something to remember throughout your career.”
Maj. Chad Plenge, an operations officer and assistant professor at West Point, focused on issues regarding the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transexual community and began his speech by reading a message he received last year.
“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t me, then things would be easier. I always knew something was different about me,” Plenge read. “Maybe I still don’t know exactly what. Or maybe I do and I’m just afraid. Either way, I’m afraid. I’m so afraid I want to cry because what if being me isn’t good enough. Tomorrow morning, I’ll drink some coffee and log into class, right now though, I need a hug.”
Plenge asked the audience if this was a cadet, Soldier or office neighbor, would they feel comfortable expressing their problems and concerns to them? And if that description fit a person at West Point going through this problem, do you know where they can find help?
“We cannot be the best versions of ourselves if you’re hiding part of who we are and we as leaders cannot be the most effective unless we know how to lead diverse teams and bring the best out of our people,” Plenge said. “Spectrum and other diversity clubs can help you be that leader. They can help you be more authentic. They can empower you to help others lead authentically, and to lead in difficult situations.”
Plenge highlighted resources as an area that can help anyone feel more empowered.
“If you need resources, we can connect you with anyone on post, and if the answers you need aren’t here and the resources you need aren’t here, we have a vast network that we can tap into from across the country,” Plenge said.
Maj. Brent Anderson, a clinical psychologist for the Center of Personal Development, addressed the reality of cadets at West Point who experienced thoughts of suicide. He added many cadets suffer and are scared to get help. They’re emotions vary, and their thoughts, which always seem to resurface in an unhealthy way.
He added the CPD has a team of clinical psychologists and behavioral health technicians ready to provide support and treatment for those in need.
“I want to alleviate some concerns about treatment. Some cadets may fear that telling a provider that they are having thoughts of suicide will lead to them being hospitalized. This may be true, but only if absolutely necessary,” Anderson said. “The reality is that most cadets who experienced thoughts of suicide continue to attend classes and live in their rooms while receiving regular treatment at CPD, thoughts of harming yourself that are vague and without planning or intent does not necessitate hospitalization.”
Anderson added cadets would be able to receive treatment to assist with subduing the intensity of the undesired thoughts and emotions while educating themselves on how to nurture emotions like joy, love, accomplishment, optimism and gratitude.
Subsequently, the discussion culminated with Gist taking the podium and delivering his final message to the cadets.
“Before we depart, let us remind ourselves that respecting dignity for all is also a vital part of our collective wellness and a hallmark that defines great organizations. Making fun of, ostracizing or otherwise disrespecting others is not acceptable. Not here. Not now. Not ever,” Gist said. “Today is another deliberate opportunity to listen, reflect, empathize and avoid any temptation to spread rumors, speculate or make hasty posts to social media. Strive to be the best version of yourself, and value the perspectives of others. Commit to the culture of resiliency and wellness, one that is intentional and marked by self-discipline.”