Thrive on Campus//

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Student Veterans

Mental health is the most pressing challenge veterans and active servicemembers on campus confront.

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Across my 20+ years of teaching undergraduates, I’ve met numerous memorable young adults. Still, Travis, a student veteran, stands out. Travis is personable, intelligent, diligent, and open about his military experiences. Despite years of work with veterans in V.A. Medical Centers and as a civilian at Lackland Air Force base, I learned a great deal from him.

Student veterans encounter unique challenges when transitioning from military service to college. As a result, among part-time student veterans, attrition reaches 37 percent. For full-time students the rate is approximately 16 percent. Explanations for the college drop-out rate include slow payment of tuition through the GI Bill and family commitments. However, there are also significant mental health challenges student veterans experience. Indeed, research indicates that mental health is the most pressing challenge veterans and active service members on campus confront.

Travis has written eloquently about his time Afghanistan. As you read this passage, consider the impact such an experience would have on an individual attempting to assimilate to college life. (Quoted here with Travis’s permission.)

Afghanistan 2010

The plan was for the trucks to pick us up, but that was no longer possible. Intel said there were IEDs on the roads, so we were on our own. We had been walking for hours when our platoon leader decided we would sleep in an abandoned compound instead. No one had much food or water left and it did not look like we would get more any time soon. I was walking toward the compound, my left eye rendering the building’s structures in various shades of electronic green, like a cyborg. My right eye saw darkness that threatened to envelop us had it not been for the stars’ grace. It is difficult to navigate terrain when the eyes are operating under such disparity. Not to mention, it made depth perception inordinately difficult. My adrenal glands undulated for most of the day and taxed my brain, but I remained vigilant against any possible threat of violence.

Once inside, I placed my weapon on the ground and removed my pack to relieve the compressed muscles in my upper back. “Infantrymen are mules,” I said, in an apathetic voice  —  the kind of inane reflection that results from blunted cognitive awareness. Tired. Yes. Onward. I was standing in a corner, feet spread, watering the grass when I heard that a resupply was being airdropped to our location. Lucky us. My platoon sergeant rounded up a few of the guys to secure the drop zone. I exited the compound into ubiquitous blackness to retrieve the replenishments. Night vision augmentation, engage. The void was flooded with green, blinking infrared beacons arranged in a cigar-shaped security perimeter. My guys and I walked to the middle of the formation to retrieve the supplies and then returned to the compound.

Speedballs are what the logistics guys called them  —  body bags filled with food, water, and ammunition, stacked and ready to be loaded onto helicopters at a moment’s notice and delivered to troops on the ground, who can quickly and easily drag them away from the DZ. I unzipped the body bag to find scores of water bottles inside, which we removed to refill our Camelbaks. We stacked all of the MRE boxes against a wall and took one back to our cubic, cell-like room. A dozen prepackaged, ready-to-eat meals were inside the box and I naturally picked Chili Mac. It had Skittles.

It can get surprisingly cold in Afghanistan during the winter, and when it was time to get ready for bed I realized that I had nothing to sleep in. Most of us didn’t. A routine, daytime mission is not usually expected to run over into the night; much less end with us sleeping in an impromptu shelter. I did not like the idea of sleeping on a cold concrete floor, so I dug in my pack to see if I had anything that could make the situation more bearable. Five hundred 5.56 mm rounds, a dozen 40 mm grenades, extra socks, a thermal imaging sight, 550 cord, and extra water bottles were not going to do much to keep me warm that night. If only there was something I could sleep in…

The recommendation came from one of my squad leaders. Body bags are designed to keep everything that could offend the senses inside and, fortuitously, this design allowed for an insulating quality. Several people refused. They thought it was a bad omen or something. I was not affected by such notions and neither was my buddy Bruce, so I asked him if he wanted to team up with me. Body bags are big enough for two bodies, and two bodies meant more heat. I unzipped the plain black bag and Bruce slipped inside. My body filled the rest of the empty space. I reached over and grabbed my rifle and tucked it inside the bag with me. I took comfort in knowing that if we got overran in the middle of the night I would for sure have my weapon. I would not have to worry about it being accidentally picked up by one of my guys or, worse, taken by the enemy.

Cocooning myself inside a body bag that cold night did not strike me as odd, abnormal, grotesque, or foreboding. I grew accustomed to life as a front-lines soldier. The more absurd the context, the more at home I felt. We were in the Arghandab River Valley in southern Afghanistan; an area full of IEDs, landmines, and people who wanted us gone in more ways than one. Body bags meant for our corpses were filled with supplies and dropped out of a CH-47 helicopter, only to be emptied and repurposed by a couple of infantrymen too tired and cold to register neuronal activity that signaled disgust. Maybe those neurons were slowly, quietly being pruned.

I look back on that night fondly. I enjoyed the feeling of settling in after a long day of walking and experiencing sporadic rushes of adrenaline. As many combat soldiers will readily admit, there are things we will always miss about war. We miss the gun fights but not the violence. The simple affirmational head nods garnered after a precisely calculated maneuver, not the complex emotions that color consciousness after the medevac helicopter leaves. Life at that time was a basic binary calculation: you executed the mission and you either came back to base to fight another day or you didn’t. 1 or 0. Yes or no.

There is a lighthearted quality to this kind of life, even if it is compartmentalized with limited access throughout the day. There was a recognition that the only thing to be taken seriously was the mission; whether that was a presence patrol, providing security at a traffic control point, engaging with an enemy or rendering aid to an ally. Everything else should be enjoyed. And then let go of  —  practice for, you know, just in case the letting go was ever one day out of my control. If you get good at letting go of the things you enjoy the most, you find freedom, and the ability to enjoy for its own sake without the fear-driven motivation to cling to concepts. I was smoking next to the burn pit the following morning when I saw Bruce walking toward me, getting closer as his smile got wider. “Indulge in your mortal pleasures!” he said, in a baleful voice. I enjoyed that, and sleeping in a body bag with my friend was me letting go.

Clearly, student veterans arrive on campus with a mental state different from most traditional students. They have been conditioned into a mission-focus which can make the less formal and relaxed environment of many college campuses fraught with frustration. Naïve students and professors may ask intrusive questions and make assumptions that leave the student veteran feeling like an outsider. Attempting to assimilate to the relatively carefree milieu of clubs and social functions can make a veteran student feel further isolated resulting in additional or magnified mental health challenges.

In addition to significant transition and integration difficulties, service members and veterans are accustomed to a lack of privacy and confidentiality. Moreover, asking for help and admitting weakness are typically anathema. Thus, the student veteran, often ill-prepared for integration, is concomitantly concerned about stigma associated with mental illness, and hesitant to report difficulties or seek services through the transition. In fact, studies comparing student veterans to their non-student counterparts suggest student veterans are significantly less likely to seek mental health services.

As is the case for all veterans, we must recognize the continued challenges service members face reintegrating into society. The student veteran, however, is cast into an environment about as opposite to military service as an atmosphere can be. To complicate matters, campus counseling centers typically do not staff personnel equipped to address their specific needs and some student veterans, particularly females, are highly reluctant to identify as veterans, thus placing themselves at increased risk.

Upon separation from the service, student veterans may lose their sense of structure, support network, and mentors. It is easy to understand how they can feel lost and alienated on a college campus. Given their reticence to present for services and the necessity of continued emotional support, novel means of meeting their needs must be developed.

One approach involves empowering student veterans to provide validation and understanding to their peers in an authentic, uncomplicated, and safe manner. GenuineU enables students to share their mental health journey, or aspects of it, in as great or limited detail as the individual is comfortable with. The sole purpose of GenuineU is to bolster mental well-being through the facilitation of sharing first-person videos and blog posts that provide compassion, support, encouragement, and advice to those who suffer quietly and alone.

GenuineU sends an open invitation to student veterans and service members to share their experiences and coping strategies. The site is free to access, and individuals can view as many videos as they want as many times as they need. GenuineU does not allow comments, like, counters, or any other form of interaction. Those who elect to share their stories do so out of a genuine concern for others and a desire to empower themselves.

Student service members and veterans often report that experiences during their time in service continue to plague them in the classroom. The subsequent statistics are appalling: Approximately 8 percent of student veterans have attempted suicide; between 14–35 percent report suicidal ideation with a plan; another 46 percent have contemplated suicide. Reading Travis’s accounts of just one deployment experience, leaves no doubt as to how or why this occurs. GenuineU is one way to help support active service member and veteran students. Please help us help them.

Ackerman, R., DiRamio, D., & Mitchell, R. L. G. (2009). Transitions: Combat veterans as college students. New directions for student services2009(126), 5–14.

Boodman, S. G. (2011). Veterans find that their transition from combat to college can be difficult. The Washington Post.

Borsari, B., Yurasek, A., Miller, M. B., Murphy, J. G., McDevitt-Murphy, M. E., Martens, M. P., … & Carey, K. B. (2017). Student service members/veterans on campus: Challenges for reintegration. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry87(2), 166.

Ely, M. (2008). Veterans in college: What advisers should expect. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal10(3), 1–2.

Radford, A. W. (2011). Military Service Members and Veterans: A Profile of Those Enrolled in Undergraduate and Graduate Education in 2007–08. Stats in Brief. NCES 2011–163. National Center for Education Statistics.

Rudd, M. D., Goulding, J., & Bryan, C. J. (2011). Student veterans: A national survey exploring psychological symptoms and suicide risk. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(5), 354.

Whitley, K., Tschudi, P. F., & Gieber, C. T. (2013). Life beyond war: Supporting the mental health needs of student veterans. Washington, DC: The HSC Foundation.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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