By HEATHER MONGILIOCAPITAL GAZETTE |SEP 06, 2020 AT 5:30 AM
Word first spread on Jodel, an anonymous social media application used by Naval Academy midshipman. A mid threatened suicide.
Unscheduled formations and a lack of communication about what happened on Aug. 29 only fueled the rumors. An email from the senior midshipman who serves as brigade resilience officer, discussing how midshipmen can’t leave the Yard and suicide, seemed to confirm the rumor.
The rumors were untrue. Cmdr. Alana Garas told The Capital there was no suicide attempt that Saturday night.
But the response from higher up and the rumors echoed a question the midshipmen have been asking as they returned to the academy for an academic year changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Midshipmen find themselves isolated, with some testing positive for COVID-19, and are asking why were they brought back?
It has been an unusual year at the Naval Academy, with traditions obliterated by new regulations and restrictions aimed at slowing the coronavirus pandemic. Morale has dropped and midshipmen are turning to anonymous social media apps to decry the lack of liberty and confusion over when, or if, they will be able to leave or return home for the holidays.
Some midshipmen questioned if suicides could happen as they did at the Air Force Academy last spring, where seniors were ordered into quarantine on campus leading up to their graduation.
Based on what mids are posting on social media, the director of the Midshipman Development Center said mental health appears to be in a decline. But Cmdr. Randy Reese added, there are fewer midshipmen seeking counseling services than last year. When a midshipman reports suicidal thoughts, staff work to get them connected with resources.
“When it’s done anonymously, then I don’t know how we’re supposed to find someone to give them resources,” Reese said.
The Capital spoke with 18 midshipmen about mental health and morale. They asked that their names not be used out of concern about the consequences.
“Most kids already struggle with depression but now there is nowhere we can go to get away from this place and I am genuinely worried that someone might get overwhelmed and take their life,” one midshipman said, adding that it is contrary to what leadership says.
Lack of leave
The Brigade of Midshipman is still in the process of returning, undergoing a two-week restriction of movement period when they arrive.
Midshipmen are currently confined to the Yard except for Navy sanctioned activities. It is closed to the general public to keep mids and the Naval Academy community in a “bubble,” safe from COVID-19. But midshipman said it’s contradictory that faculty and leadership are allowed to leave, as well as the football team for games and practices.
“The idea that Navy can go play [Brigham Young University], but we can’t hug our moms, we really don’t appreciate it,” one midshipman said.
Garas said academy officials are aware it is a challenging time for midshipmen. She said planning is critical before any changes are made to the liberty policy, which she said has been communicated to the brigade.
“The idea that Navy can go play [Brigham Young University], but we can’t hug our moms, we really don’t appreciate it.” A MIDSHIPMAN
Some midshipman on Jodel say those claiming low morale are contributing to a toxic environment or just whining. And other mids say the lack of liberty has been tough but not a problem.
“Although the past couple weeks with no liberty has been an adjustment, many midshipmen are using this opportunity to spend quality times with company mates and foster deeper friendships that carry ties far past our short four years together,” a first-class midshipman wrote in an email.
The brigade resource officer’s email, obtained by The Capital, informed midshipmen that while mental health has decreased with increasing stress, mids should not connect the lack of liberty with suicidal thoughts.
“Nonetheless, the lack of liberty and the difficulties on the yard do not drive people towards suicidal ideations, mental disorders, or other diagnosable conditions,” the midshipman wrote to the brigade. “This is the opinion of both MDC psychologists and a Navy suicidologist. Those with existing conditions are experiencing more hardship, however, and need support.”
The brigade resource officer has since sent out another email, acknowledging his first message was not well received.[Most read] Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry vows improvement after subpar performance vs. BYU »
“I want you to know that I, and more important the peer advisers and all our peers, understand the immense amount of the stress the Brigade is undergoing,” the email states.
A focus on image
The academy is concerned about the image of the school rather than the welfare of its brigade, the midshipmen said.
And then they point to Capt. Thomas R. Buchanan, the commandant of midshipmen. They feel he has turned his focus to making the academy’s environment look better than it is.
Buchanan was praised over the summer for his Dant Daily videos on Instagram, which he used to connect with the scattered brigade. The midshipmen now see the Dant Dailies as a public relations tool, nicknaming the commandant P.R. Buchanan and urging people to unfollow his Instagram account.https://www.instagram.com/p/CEnE03EFg5b/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12&wp=658&rd=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.capitalgazette.com&rp=%2Feducation%2Fnaval-academy%2Fac-cn-naval-academy-midshipmen-mental-health-20200906-hneyst4ksjbubejalhqnuxye7m-story.html#%7B%22ci%22%3A0%2C%22os%22%3A37476.8699999986%7D
Buchanan’s response to a meme posted on an anonymous Instagram account concerned some mids. The meme featured a pornography actress and talked about morale. Buchanan called the meme inappropriate because of the actress, which led some midshipmen to ask why he chose to not address the content of the meme.[Most read] Annapolis public housing residents could be protected by CDC eviction moratorium through end of year »
The commandant did not comment on the meme.
While Garas said that military structure calls for midshipmen to use established procedures and processes to provide feedback, midshipmen said that when they bring up concerns they are ignored.
Another point of contention among the midshipmen is the lack of information around the number of COVID-19 cases at the academy. The Naval Academy has declined to provide The Capital an exact number of cases citing “operational security” but later said less than 2% of the brigade currently at the academy tested positive for COVID-19.
Jodel and social media
As frustrated as midshipmen are with leadership, there is one staff member who might be as frustrated with them — or at least those posting anonymously on social media.
“I don’t need social media to know that we’re in a stressful time,” said Reese, director of the Midshipman Development Center.
He said one of the things driving low morale is the loss of liberty. In a normal semester, mids would have had town liberty by early September — freedom to roam Annapolis or spend time at sponsors’ homes.
Midshipmen looking to talk about mental health can talk to chaplains or go through the MDC. Chaplains are completely confidential, while the center might have to report a suicidal midshipman if the student needs additional services.
The center’s services have gone digital, with telehealth implemented in March. Chaplains are more readily accessible because of this, Reese said, but wait times for an appointment average about five days.
That is a day shorter than the national average for other university counseling services, he said.
So it’s a little bit frustrating, on our end, to hear people make general vague complaints and assertions but not proactively engage in activities that are set up to answer their questions and help them develop the skills that they’re asking for.” CMDR. RANDY REESE, DIRECTOR OF THE MIDSHIPMEN DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER
Some midshipmen are concerned seeking counseling will affect their naval careers.
Reese understands the stigma, and he said the MDC is working to address it. The center sees about 800 midshipmen, or 20% of the brigade. Of that group, about 5% to 10% report suicidal ideation or self-harm during initial intake.
A smaller number are hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or self-harm, and approximately 80% of them will still be commissioned, Reese said.
According to The Capital’s previous reporting, there have been at least two suicides at the academy over the last eight years.
The MDC holds sessions to discuss mental health and resources, but they have been poorly attended.
The Peer Advisor Program will be revamping its efforts, including providing suicide prevention training to every company next week, according to the BRO email.
“So it’s a little bit frustrating, on our end, to hear people make general vague complaints and assertions but not proactively engage in activities that are set up to answer their questions and help them develop the skills that they’re asking for,” Reese said.
As the midshipmen spend Labor Day weekend on the Yard, some will be showcasing positive activities through the commandant’s Instagram account.
Others will be worrying the weekend without liberty might be a tipping point for the mental health of the brigade.
A midshipman wears a face mask to protect against COVID-19 while walking with laundry at the U.S. Naval Academy, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Annapolis, Under the siege of the coronavirus pandemic, classes have begun at the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But unlike at many colleges around the country, most students are on campus and many will attend classes in person. Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez/AP)1 / 18FOR THE RECORD
This article has been updated to reflect that the email sent to midshipmen about liberty and mental health was from a brigade resilience officer.
Heather Mongilio is the Report For America corps member with the Capital Gazette, where she covers military affairs. Mongilio previously reported at The Frederick News-Post and the Carroll County Times. She earned a master’s degree in science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree from American University.