A group worth fighting for
As colleges and universities consider how to target resources towards student success, one group that should not be overlooked is student veterans. Not only do those who serve deserve respect and support, they arrive on campus with distinct profiles and perspectives that need to be acknowledged.
For many young men and women, the path to college begins with military service – either as a way to afford the high cost of tuition or as an opportunity to try something different before settling into school. This makes student veterans older and, in many cases, wiser than their recent high school graduate peers. Student veterans bring with them unique experiences, most of which add texture and depth to the academic community; but they can also bring challenges in terms of health and wellness.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, just under 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Around the same amount reported having experienced a traumatic brain injury during deployment, which can lead to behavioral health conditions later in life.
Barriers to access, stigma and lack of effective outreach or education can often impede student veterans from seeking treatment. And sometimes, even when they do ask for help, faculty, staff, and even counselors are not properly trained to assist student veterans and understand the challenges they face.
A recent study by The National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah found that most colleges and universities have a long way to go in understanding and supporting the mental health needs of student veterans, and not just those who have experienced combat.
Of the 14,673 college and university faculty and staff surveyed, about 70 percent said they did not feel adequately prepared to recognize when a student Veteran is exhibiting signs of psychological distress. 75 percent said they do not feel prepared to approach student veterans to discuss their concern.
According to Craig J. Bryan, Psy.D., assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, part of the problem is the disconnect between student veterans and professors or staff who are used to very young adults. Most student veterans are often past the point of transitioning into adulthood by the time they start college, which can make it difficult for campus community members to help them navigate their college experience, let alone any struggles they may have along the way.
“We’re finding that, because other staffers haven’t served in the military or in a Federal service role in general, they don’t know how to talk to them about the issues they face,” Dr. Bryan said. “They’re used to working with 18- to 19-year-old kids who go to parties and hang at frat houses. Student veterans are 23 or 24 when they start school, and many of them have already served in leadership positions. They’ve been responsible for multimillion-dollar budgets, and they’ve managed other people.”
According to the study, higher ed leaders recognize the value that veterans can bring to the classroom, yet they often feel ill-equipped to tap into their experiences.
The good news in all of this is that there is a strong desire to learn how to better connect and support student veterans on campus. More than 95 percent of the faculty and staff surveyed in Dr. Bryan’s study said that it is part of their duty to assist and support student veterans and to connect them to mental health services, should the need arise. Almost 94 percent said people in their positions should take a course on military competency and Veteran mental health.
“What we’ve found is that a lot of administrative staff and faculty members very much want to be able to help student veterans in need,” said Dr. Bryan. “The majority of them are saying, ‘I don’t know what to do about that. If there were a student Veteran in need, I’m not necessarily confident I would be prepared to support them in the best way possible.’ They’re telling us that providing that training would be beneficial to the higher education system.”
Another component of addressing this issue is changing people’s misperception of student veterans, which experts believe adds to the alienation. If there is a sense among campus community members that veterans are universally “broken” or “suffering” when they return from service, then there is a hesitancy to connect.
“There’s a whole notion of veterans being broken or angry with mental health problems and PTSD,” said Dr. Bryan. “Faculty members make assumptions. The stereotypes we might have about military members might serve as a barrier for faculty members to fully engage and assist student veterans. Everyone is well-intentioned, but they think of the veteran with the head clutched in their hands crying. But, it’s more appropriate to approach this issue with duty, integrity, and honor – to speak the language of veterans’ culture.”
Part of training for faculty and staff could include how best to speak that language. How can you engage student veterans in a respectful way? What’s the best way to relate to them and make them feel heard? How can you promote inclusivity and understanding in and out of the classroom?
In addition to better preparing faculty and staff, the report suggests colleges should provide more dedicated support to help student veterans who are struggling academically or need help handling the mental health challenges that sometimes accompany integrating into an academic environment after serving.
Campuses should ensure there is at least one licensed mental health professional available who is ready to provide support and services tailored to student veterans. This way, veterans don’t necessarily have to go to the local VA to receive this type of specialized care. The VA often is inconveniently located or has hours that coincide with class. Schools can address this problem by bringing those services to campus, so an appointment with a therapist who understands what the student is going through is a walk across campus rather than a drive across town.
Establishing support centers for student veterans can be another important way of helping them succeed and improve their overall wellbeing. Many campuses have support centers for other minority populations such as LGBTQ+ students. Incorporating veterans into this approach of multiculturalism by offering the same dedicated systems of care and resources can often make a big difference, Dr. Bryan suggested.
The Mary Christie Quarterly recently interviewed Admiral James Stavridis, the former Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University which has a large number of military personnel and veterans. When asked about providing adequate mental health services for this group of graduate students, he said having an open environment for discussion on campus is of great importance.
“The first thing we do is identify those who are having problems,” said Adm. Stavridis. “Second is to talk broadly about it. When we bring in all the students for indoctrination, we have mental health professionals come and communicate to the students that it’s okay to not be okay.”
Having open communication and forming peer relationships are helpful strategies for student veterans, but feeling like a part of the community can be difficult for any student not participating in the traditional, four-year college path. According to the VA website, just 15 percent of student veterans are traditionally college-aged (ages 18 to 22), 47 percent of student veterans have children, and 47.3 percent are married.
Connecting these students to opportunities for social engagement and lasting relationships is crucial to supporting them in their college experience – particularly if they are undergoing behavioral health issues, which can be assuaged by the presence of meaningful relationships and a supportive social circle.
When she was Chancellor of the University of North Carolina (Asheville), Dr. Mary Grant worked with campus leaders to create a space specifically designated for returning veterans. The living/study area that Veteran leaders helped design and furnish became a go-to spot for student veterans who were often commuting to campus.
“In addition to academic support and disability accommodations, there are social connections for veterans that schools need to be thinking about. It’s about feeling like they are welcome on campus and being able to talk with someone who has shared their experiences.”
Training, outreach, communication and community are all important elements of a targeted strategy to better support student veterans. Considering the cost of college and the benefits of serving first, the schools that adopt these strategies will be better and stronger for doing so.