Meet David Cunningham, Director of Psychological Health (DPH), 163rd Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, March Air Reserve Base. He has filled this position since May 2014, yet there are many who don’t know what he does or what he can provide in the way of mental health.
With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work this U.S. Army Veteran served as a captain and clinical social worker. Cunningham has more than 25 years of experience in the psychological health field, and has worked in both private practice and for Veteran’s Affairs
You can find him and Jax, his German Shepherd-in-therapy dog-training, making the rounds through various work centers at the 163 ATKW. He hands out candy and granola bars on a regular basis to build and maintain relationships with wing members and make sure they know he is available any time they need his help.
In the following interview, Cunningham explains psychological health and how the DPH supports the wing.
Avey: Since starting your career, what do you find is a common need?
Cunningham: You can find depression and anxiety in any population and someone having it doesn’t mean it has to be debilitating. People deal with it every day. It’s developing the skills to get you through it that is most important. Sometimes it may be very short-lived, or it could be something that is going to be there for a while. Either way, you need to learn coping skills. If warranted, you may also, at times, need to access clinical care. It could be a grief-related issue if you have had a spouse or family member that has passed away. You can even grieve a loss of a spouse through divorce. Loss of relationships is an example of what causes depression.
Avey: What are some of the ways you help people navigate through the process?
Cunningham: My goal is to get them the resources they need to be successful in their work and with their families. It could be just having a conversation and pointing them in the right direction for resources, providing feedback or coaching on meditation and breathing techniques. It may be connecting them with a therapist on the outside so they can have more in-depth care. In my role I do not provide in-depth counseling. As the DPH, I will assist with short-term problem solving and resolutions. My goal is to find resources locally either through their insurance, free [such as Military OneSource] or income-based services. My goal is to help Airmen remain functional and operational with whatever they are dealing with. I can also help people find resources for their families, such as tutoring or helping them navigate resources if there are behavioral issues with their kids. I maintain confidentiality and do not share what is discussed.
Avey: Do you feel there is a stigma connected to mental health? What do you feel about this stigma?
Cunningham: Mental health has a significant stigma in the military. The reality is, when doing self-reporting, it reflects positively upon you. You are not going to risk things and try to cover it up. When I was in the Army, I saw where the stigma prevented help sometimes. I have not had that happen here. The experience here is overwhelming support from leadership. Their immediate response is, ‘What do I need to do to help?’ That has not always been the mentality that our Airmen may have dealt with, so I understand why the stigma has been there.
Avey: What is it like when Airmen come to you for assistance?
Cunningham: I can have some pretty intense conversations, but usually they are trying to get me enough info to where I can get them the right resource. Sometimes they just need to vent.
Avey: Why did you take this position with the 163rd Attack Wing?
Cunningham: For me it is an opportunity to work with the military and their families again. People say they feel they have a calling. I would like to say for myself this is what I enjoy doing and I have worked with Veterans or active duty for a huge part of my life. Being at the 163rd gives me the opportunity to work with the population I really want to work with, but at the same time I feel like my skill-set is a match. I feel like it works both ways.
Avey: How did you get started in this field?
Cunningham: I started in the psychological health field in 1990 when I was in college and became a psych tech in the local hospital in a psychiatric unit. It was just a job at the time, but I never knew it was going to end up being what I did. I ended up changing majors, getting my degree in psychology, and later my master’s in social work. It is pretty much what I have been doing ever since.
The 163rd Attack Wing DPH is available 24/7 and he can be reached at 951-208-3125. A DPH is available in each Air National Guard wing. There is also a DPH assigned to the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, who is available to all Team March members and their families. Her name is Elaine Valentine and she can be reached at 951-655-5097 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, BLDG 317, weekdays from 6:30-16:30 and UTA weekends upon request.