Peak Performance Center creates safe spaces for cadets

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The staff at the Academy's Peak Performance Center wants cadets to feel at ease the minute they walk through the door. Chairs, small sofas and a large-screen TV adorn the open, well-lit waiting room on the second floor of Sijan Hall. Water trickles down a fountain in the back of the room, creating a calm ambience. The message is clear: No matter how hectic your life is outside these walls, you can breathe a little easier here.

The PPC is modeled after college counseling centers, said Capt. Heather Morris, one of the center's clinical psychologists. It supplements the mental health and family advocacy services available through the 10th Medical Group but also offers a greater degree of confidentiality.

"Mental health is a normal part of life," Morris said. "Everyone at some point in their life would benefit from just talking with someone about everyday stresses in a confidential environment.  We have the luxury here to be where the cadets live, study and play; it is very convenient for them to walk in for expert care."

Some behaviors stem from age and adjusting to the Academy's operations tempo, Morris said. A PPC psychologist can refer a cadet to a mental health specialist if a cadet shows signs of a disorder, such as drastic changes in behavior, an attempt to cause self-harm or an expression of desire to do so.

Even in many of those cases, the center is usually the first stop for a cadet in a crisis situation, said Maj. Michael Temple, another of the center's psychologists.

"Even a hospitalization for mental health is not a career ender," Temple said. He referred to Air Force Medical Operations Agency statistics that show 98 percent of the time, Airmen do not suffer an adverse career impact once they seek help for mental illness, and he added that many of the remaining two percent of cases result in adverse career impact because an Airman didn't seek help soon enough.

But crisis situations make up a small minority of the center's overall case load, Morris said. Most cadets who visit the PPC are looking for help coping with stress, balancing their school and social lives and trying to forge their own identities.

"This place is not the best environment to figure out who you are," she said. "It's so much different from high school or homeschool, from the big town or small town they came from." 

Patient care makes up just one third of the center's mission. The other two thirds involves outreach efforts with the Academy's military leaders and the Personal Ethics and Education Representative, or PEER, program, which trains cadets within each squadron to serve as accredited counselors, and outreach efforts with the Academy's air officers commanding.

"The PEERs are students we train and give ongoing education to," Temple said. "They're the eyes and ears within the cadet squadrons, making sure cadets are receiving the care they need and that appropriate referrals are being made."

PEERS are accredited through Bacchus Initiatives, which became part of the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education in January. They meet with PPC psychologists not just for ongoing training but to make sure they're OK, too, Morris said.

"There's a risk of vicarious trauma," she said. "It can impact you. We teach cadets to recognize the signs of that. And sometimes we'll have a PEER who's dealing with their own matters."

The center's counselors sometimes lecture in Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department classes and help AOCs toward degrees in counseling, which each AOC receives as part of on-the-job training, Temple said.

"The AOCs already know who we are and aren't afraid to give us a call," he said.