The population of Student Veterans across college campuses is dramatically increasing.
The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (2013) indicates that 1% or more of undergraduate students have some type of military affiliation. The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown established the MountainCat Veterans Program (MVP) in 2009 to foster a positive experience and assist Student Veterans with the transition to college. This information provided by the Office of Health & Wellness Services in support of Pitt-Johnstown Student Veterans and the MVP Initiative is meant to further assist faculty and staff in understanding and supporting the unique needs of this population. Research has shown that the provision of such education and information is a means is to positively impact veteran academic success, persistence, and graduation (Moon & Schma, 2011, Ackerman, DiRamio, & Mitchell, 2009).
The MVP Initiative is rooted in the Morrill Act 1862 that was first established to train military personnel across land grant institutions. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill® and/or Montgomery Bill was enacted following World War II and laid the foundation for veterans to seek a college education upon discharge. The Post 9/11 GI Bill® that was passed by Congress on August 1, 2009 parallels this earlier legislation that supports the modern day veteran in securing a college degree. Current projections signify that colleges and universities will evidence a 25-percent increase in student veterans enrollment upon discharge from the Armed Forces (Rumann, Rivera, & Hernandez , 2011, Moon and Schma, 2011).
There are increasing numbers of military Service Members that are using Government Issued (GI) education benefits for postsecondary education. Although there are numerous GI education benefit programs, the most generous educational benefit is the Post 9/11 GI Bill® that covers tuition and stipends for books (Rumann, et al., 2011). According to Veteran Affairs, there are presently over 300,000 current and former Service Members that are using the Post-9/11 GI educational benefits (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013).
Please see the following link for more information on GI education benefits:
Characteristics of Student Veterans
The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (2013) report that Student Veterans present with the following characteristics:
- 73 percent are male
- 27 percent are female
- 15 percent are 18-23 years old and resemble traditional college students
- 50 percent are between the ages of 24 and 39
- 47 percent have children
- 47 percent are married
- 35 percent are unmarried and without dependents
The mindset of a Student Veteran is often very different from that of a traditional student, as the beliefs and principles learned through military service often impact the development and psychological profile of the individual veteran (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013). Reportedly, a limited percentage of enrolled Student Veterans embrace the opportunity to become totally immersed in the traditional college experience as most Student Veterans view college as means to secure gainful employment after military service, foster a positive return to civilian life, and further enhance one’s quality of life (Smith-Osborne, 2009).
Student Veterans returning from combat may face some challenges in adjusting to civilian life, and could be especially prone to additional adjustment difficulties while transitioning into college. Experiencing combat can promote positive self-discipline, goal establishment, and time management; however, combat experience can also impede a Student Veteran’s ability to adjust to new situations. This is not unusual as many Student Veterans struggle due to combat related mental illness and/or physical injuries incurred while in combat. Research on deployed service members reveal that most experienced chronic stressors and other traumatic events that permanently impact and changed their lives (Ackerman, et al., 2009).
Two of the most common physical disabilities for Student Veterans are musculoskeletal injuries and hearing impairments. Physical disabilities create numerous barriers for Student Veterans attempting to adjust to the college environment. These barriers may evidence themselves in the academic environment as tardiness, lack of classroom participation, absenteeism, and the need for additional classroom assistance. These disabilities can have severe impacts on the Student Veteran if not addressed appropriately (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013). If you encounter students with presenting challenges or disabilities please refer them to the Office of Health and Wellness Services/Disability Services staff.
Traumatic Brain Injury, a cognitive injury, is a common diagnosis of Veterans returning from war time tours of duty. TBI is described as a head injury from an external force that disrupts the functioning of the brain, and can lead to permanent or temporary deficiencies of cognitive, physical, and psychosocial functioning (The Kresge Foundation, 2010). The Department of Veteran Affairs labeled Traumatic Brain Injury a “signature wound” in 2003, as more than 60% of blast injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a TBI (Cifu, Cohen, Lew, Jaffee, Sigford, 2010). The daily stressors associated with higher education can exacerbate feelings of frustration, depression, and/or suicidal ideation as such an injury greatly impacts cognitive functioning (The Kresge Foundation, 2010). Often Student Veteran’s with TBI’s are not aware of the extent of their functional limitations due to their impairment until they enroll in an academic setting.
The common symptoms associated with TBI include:
- Attention & concentration difficulties
- Information processing & sequencing challenges
- Learning & memory deficits
- Sluggish abstract reasoning & problem solving
- Limited insight & awareness
Combat exposure and injury is not the only factor to consider as it is not uncommon for Veterans to be victims of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). MST is a term coined by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening, sexual harassment that occurred to males or females during their tour of duty. (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, Mental Health). Research indicates that more than half of all females indicated sexual harassment while in the military, and nearly one quarter reported sexual assault (Skinner, Kressin, & Frayne; 2000). Additional military research reveals that individuals who have been victimized are at a greater risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to sexual trauma (Williams & Bernstein, 2011).
- Battlefield skills
Battlefield skills also make reintegration to civilian life challenging for the returning Veteran. The following is list of battlefield skills identified by Munroe (2013).
- Trust and Identifying the Enemy
- Mission Orientation
- Response Tactics
- Predictability and Intelligence Control
- Emotional Control
- Talking about the War
The mental health of Student Veterans is a crucial part of their academic success. It is reported that at least one-third of Student Veterans may be struggling with the "invisible wounds" of war including: traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, or major depression (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, Mental Health). Approximately 20 to 30 percent of Veterans returning from Iraq report that they have experienced mental health problems. Research further suggests that Veterans who were deployed for greater than six months and/or experienced multiple deployments are at an increased risk for mental health issues (Ackerman, et al., 2009). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2009) further indicates that depression among Veterans aged 21 to 39 who served in the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars, ranges from 25 and 30 percent for all Veterans who served (Depression in veterans report, 2009), with 27 percent of returning combat veterans reporting significant depression (Ackerman, et al., 2009).
Suicide prevention is of greatest concern in working with Student Veterans. A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs found that the number of suicides among Veterans in 2010 increased to 22 deaths per day (Dao, 2013). Burns (2013) reported that military suicide rates were higher last year than in any year since 2001, and in 2012 there were more military suicides reported than deaths in Afghanistan. A detailed examination of the research on military suicides indicates that 60 percent of all suicides were committed with firearms; with 65 percent of those who attempted suicide, and 45 percent who succeeded in suicide having a known history of mental health issues (Burns, 2013).
The United State Department of Veteran Affairs (2013) warns that Student Veterans who present with these signs may be at greater risk of self-harm.
Learn to recognize these warning signs:
- Hopelessness, feeling like there’s no way out
- Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
- Feeling like there is no reason to live
- Rage or anger
- Engaging in risky activities without thinking
- Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
- Withdrawing from family and friends
(United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, Mental Health).
Alcohol and drug misuse can lead to serious health, relationship, employment, and legal problems (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, Mental Health). Research indicates that 24 percent of veterans report alcohol abuse issues (Ackerman et al., 2009).
Problems with drinking or drug use may occur in response to stress, or in combination with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, or other mental health or medical conditions.
Fortunately there are support services to help Veterans initiate steps towards recovery from alcohol or drug misuse and dependence, including mutual help groups and professional mental health treatment (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, Mental Health).
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after someone has experienced a traumatic event, such as combat or a physical or sexual assault. The symptoms of PTSD may emerge shortly after the traumatic event; or may be suppressed for years following the event. As high as 30 percent of Veterans experience a traumatic event in their lifetime and are most likely to develop PTSD (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, National Center for PTSD), often with overlapping symptoms of depression and/or suicidal ideation (The Kresge Foundation, 2010).
Symptoms of PTSD are as followed and can include:
- Reliving the event
- Avoiding places or things that bring back memories of the event
- Feeling numb
- Feelings of hyper-arousal
(United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, National Center for PTSD)
In the classroom, or on campus, PTSD symptoms may result following:
- Classroom discussions about the military and war-zone experiences may trigger anger and/or anxiety in Student Veterans.
- If a Student Veteran is not attending or participating in class, careful consideration should be given as to why. Detachment from others, or feeling different from other students, may be contributing to avoidance.
- Difficulty sitting still, scanning the environment, and exaggerated startle responses may be observable in the classroom.
Be cognizant of your discussions with Veteran Students as triggers of PTSD are not always identifiable and the symptoms are not always obvious.
(United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, What are common adjustment experiences & United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013, National Center for PTSD)
Some signs that a student may be at risk include:
- Academic progress has decreased significantly despite intervention
- Abilities and performance appear to be impaired by mental health and/or wellness issues
- Displaying “disturbing” behaviors and/or expressing violent comments
- Extreme changes in behavior or mood (i.e. crying, depression, disruptive behavior, attendance, decreased work performance, deteriorated hygiene, lethargic, attention problems, angry outbursts)
- Excessive preoccupation with morbid themes, violent fantasies, weapons or explosives
Reporting Emergency and Non-emergency Contacts
The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown values the students’ health and well-being. If you should have an emergency, immediate concern, or a potential threat contact campus police immediately.
Contact Campus Police for all Mental Health Emergencies
1. Immediately call 814-269-7005 or 814-269-7222 to report an emergency
(x7005 or x7222 from an on-campus phone).
2. Be prepared to provide Campus Police with the following information:
a. Nature of the emergency;
b. Exact location of the incident (look for landmarks or room numbers);
c. Number of people involved (or an estimate);
d. Type of assistance needed, as best you can tell (medical, fire, police);
e. Your name and contact information (ie., cell number)
If Campus Police cannot be reached, dial 911 for off-campus police (from an on-campus phone, dial 911).
Non-Emergency situations can also be reported to Campus Police. However for specific student concerns that do not require immediate attention the University has a Care Reporting System.
A Care Report is designed to notify The Division of Student Affairs of any potential problems that a student may be experiencing. Any concern surrounding the health and wellbeing of a student may be reported.
The counseling staff welcomes referrals received from faculty, staff, and students. Often Care Reports are submitted for general concerns surrounding the mental health of a student.
Once a referral has been made, the counseling staff will follow up with the student making every effort to encourage that individual to make a counseling appointment. All information shared by the student with the Office of Health and Wellness Services/Counseling Center is strictly confidential. For all Mental Health related non-emergencies please direct questions to the Office of Health and Wellness at 814-296-7119.
Non-emergency situations that do not present an immediate threat of harm or safety can be reported to the Office of Health and Wellness at 814-269-7119, or file a care report online.