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Nearly three million veterans of the post-9/11 generation have entered higher education after service. These students don’t fit the mold of a traditional 18- to 22-year-old college student—a majority are older than other students, married with children, twice as likely to have a job off-campus, and have considerable life experience before starting postsecondary school. How can colleges and universities tailor support for the health and well-being of college student veterans?
What are the characteristics of student veterans?
The Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) estimates veterans make up 3-4% of college students in America. They arrive on campus with global experiences, broad diversity, and a commitment to service. In classrooms, on athletic fields, and in student organizations, student veterans are proving resilient, resourceful, entrepreneurial, and adept at team building. And they’re mature beyond their years, honest, and fiercely loyal to the institution. They generally exercise dynamic leadership abilities tested and proven under the most stressful conditions imaginable.
Student military veterans are a diverse group, as highlighted in the demographics from the Student Veterans’ Association (SVA) Census Survey:
In keeping with overall U.S. population trends, the Pew Research Center reports that the veteran population is expected to become more racially and ethnically diverse. Projections also indicate that the veteran population will become slightly younger, with 33% of veterans being younger than 50 in 2046 compared with 27% in 2021. All of that to say, it’s increasingly important for colleges and universities to consider how to support the health and well-being of college student veterans.
What challenges do veteran students face?
While military experience has led some to academic success, it also presents unique challenges that can negatively impact grades and retention. From feeling 10 to 20 years older than everyone else in the classroom to struggling with physical disabilities, student veterans face different issues than typical students when furthering their education. These problems can be managed with strategic planning. The first step in overcoming these challenges is understanding what they are.
1. Adapting to campus life
Adapting to campus and civilian life after active duty can have a negative impact on GPA. The American College Personnel Association lists contributing factors such as starting school after a break and balancing work, school, and personal responsibilities. Adapting to campus life requires student veterans to adjust to new structures, hierarchies, and expectations. “The experience of cultural incongruence and difficulty with peers and faculty have both been shown to negatively impact academic performance as it affects student veterans’ sense of belonging. This lack of belonging can be particularly true for veterans who do not hold traditionally predominant or privileged identities in the military (white, straight, men) who may feel unseen on campus and may not utilize veteran resources.”
2. Academic Performance
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that student veterans’ perceptions of their potential for academic success are mixed. Some report a readiness for schoolwork that’s heightened by their military experience. Other students have concerns about meeting academic standards. Military courses and training can be quite duty-specific and practical, while college classes and assignments can be more general and abstract. “Student veterans spend more time preparing for classes and talking with instructors outside of class than civilian students do. However, student veterans are less likely to participate in experiential learning opportunities, such as internships or practicums.”
Despite the availability of mental health and well-being services from providers on campuses across the U.S., seeking mental health support may not feel straightforward for student veterans. Studies show student veterans perceive seeking help for mental health as stigmatized at higher rates than their non-veteran peers. They’re also less likely to believe in medication use for improving mental health. Additionally, Best Value Schools claims “many college student bodies lean towards the liberal end of the spectrum and can host an anti-war or even anti-military sentiment. This means former military members, particularly those who saw combat, might find themselves challenged by fellow students.” These factors can all stigmatize help-seeking behaviors in student vets.
4. Medical and emotional disabilities
The VA reports that some student veterans deal with physical and emotional disabilities. Nearly two-thirds of all student veterans stated that they have at least one VA disability rating. This means they had a service-connected condition that made them eligible for monthly compensation. Among these students, 75% reported that their disability impacts their educational experience. According to the VA, the two most common physical disabilities for veteran students are:
- Musculoskeletal problems (e.g., amputations, joint pain, back pain)
Can cause difficulty sitting for long periods of time, discomfort in using a standard desk, an inability to hold a pen or use a keyboard, the need for frequent medical appointments, side effects from medication, and limited mobility.
- Hearing problems (e.g., hearing loss, tinnitus or “ringing” in the ear)
This can mean a veteran needs special seating or equipment, misses conversations, or has difficulty participating in discussions.
Additionally, nearly one-third of student veterans deal with the invisible wounds of war like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or anxiety. These conditions can impact school performance and the ability to concentrate and complete assignments.
5. Mental Health
Government studies to assess mental health symptoms, suicidal ideation/behaviors, and treatment among student veterans found that 14.6% of student vets enrolled in a postsecondary school thought about suicide—with 36.9% screening positive for depression. Data also showed that student veterans have significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts compared to non-veteran college students. A survey of 483 veterans enrolled at 71 colleges conducted by Inside Higher Ed found:
- 33% of respondents had suicidal ideation
- 11% reported self-harm
- 50% have either been diagnosed or feel they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- 20% believed they suffer from anxiety and depression
- 67% experienced moderate to severe anxiety
Additional factors include:
- Hesitancy to seek mental health services due to stigma or shame
- Previous suicide thoughts or attempts
- Access to firearms or other lethal weapons
- Feeling misunderstood
- Academic problems
- Conflicts with roommates and/or peers
- Experiencing the loss of a partner, close friend, family member, or dependent
Take proactive measures to support college student veteran's mental health journeys
What are support services available to Veterans?
Here are resources colleges and universities can make available to support student veteran success:
- Veterans Crisis Line
The Veterans Crisis Line provides free confidential crisis support for veterans and their support networks 24/7. Veterans don’t need healthcare coverage to use this service.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
This prevention line connects people with counselors via phone or chat. Immediate and emergency services are provided.
- Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL)
VITAL is a free program offered through the VA to promote academic success among student vets. Counselors support veterans with ongoing treatment of mental health conditions.
- Military OneSource
This Department of Defense-backed program provides help for immediate crisis situations and long-term mental health wellness. Resources include 24/7 access to crisis counselors, coping strategies, podcasts, and webinars.
- VA Telehealth Services
This VA program connects veterans with doctors and therapists via telehealth, allowing vets to access medical and mental health care quickly from the convenience of their chosen location.
- Student Veterans of America
This national organization advocates for veterans’ success in higher education. The organization has 1,500 college chapters nationwide.
- Separating from Service: The Mental Health Handbook for Transitioning Veterans
This book considers the veteran as a whole. It provides guidance on factors that impact mental wellness, such as school, work, and personal relationships.
- Make the Connection: Real Veterans. Real Stories
This podcast focuses on the mental health challenges of veterans, featuring real-life stories and advice.
- JED Foundation and Bob Woodruff Foundation
A training tool that helps campus professionals understand the student veteran perspective, engage with them on campus, and provide the necessary resources to help student veterans succeed.
How can colleges and universities support the mental health of veteran students?
Many of the challenges veterans encounter with college services and health professionals are clear—either the college lacks dedicated staff knowledgeable in veterans’ issues and resources or they lack cultural awareness to interact with veterans appropriately. These issues can be solved by investing in resources, recruiting quality staff, and delivering regular training on veteran culture and service member needs. Inside Higher Ed outlines the following initiatives to address student veterans’ healthcare needs:
- Provide an initial intake in the Veteran Reserve Corp (VRC) upon enrollment for all vets each semester and add free mental health screening as a standard component.
- Increase access to mental health services within the VRC. Add groups, partnerships, and targeted programs focused on issues such as addiction, PTSD, and building skills and tools for acclimation from military life.
- Start prevention and intervention marketing and social media campaigns to address suicidal ideation, how to assess for signs, and where to go.
- Develop peer-to-peer mentoring programs that include a buddy system for veterans upon enrollment in your college. Follow up weekly and monthly to assure needs are met and questions are answered.
- Build campus outreach programs to address the needs of veterans’ health. Identify campus services and individuals by name rather than just giving veterans a number to call.
- Streamline access to support services and enrollment into VA health care, as well as provide advocates to assist and support students in accessing VA appointments and meeting their mental and health concerns.
Telehealth can be especially effective with student veterans—it’s fast, easy, and efficient. It eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and is available the moment a student needs care. When students with military backgrounds don’t have to wait days or weeks for a counseling center appointment, they are bound to feel supported, helping them reach their higher education goals.
TimelyMD would like to thank our many veterans on staff for their service. For more information on how mental and physical telehealth for colleges can make a difference in the lives of your student veterans, contact TimelyMD.