Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Understanding PTSD, TBI, Suicide and Student Veteran Success

Social support helps mitigate PTSD and other issues affecting student veterans

Posted Feb 08, 2015

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

Luskin's Learning Psychology Series, No. 16

Asked whether the 6,700 colleges and universities approved as eligible to educate veterans on the G.I. Bill were doing enough to support former troops, Rodrigo Garcia, national chairman of the Student Veterans of America, gave them “an overall C+ (Wallis 2015).

     Recently, I had the privilege of welcoming and participating with staff from the Ventura County Office of Veterans Affairs and faculty, staff and veteran students from Moorpark, Ventura and Oxnard Colleges, California Lutheran University and California State University, Channel Islands in a county wide staff development program offered with the objective of providing better and more welcoming support for veteran students on campus. My purpose with this article is to share essential insights from this training program that reinforce insight, call attention to the special needs of veteran students and offer specific factors that, when recognized, contribute to the success of veteran students on campus.

Veteran students on campus have special needs.

     Veterans come from diverse backgrounds and experiences.  However, there are common factors related to the unique veterans culture on any campus that are important to the success of student veterans. This requires acknowledgment and attention, including at least a basic understanding of special common challenges and symptoms affecting many veteran students. These include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) aggression towards others, towards themselves and suicide (Wortzel 2013). The Veterans Administration reports that these issues affect more than twenty percent of veterans. Veterans students may have special needs and all of us who serve our veteran students should understand how these conditions can impact them on campus. Recognizing and understanding sometimes subtle symptoms, supports the important objective of increasing the success of our veteran students.

Social Support helps to mitigate PTSD and other issues.

Research shows that the transition from a highly structured and organized military life to a more fluid and independent civilian life can be overwhelming. In the beginning, a returning veteran may feel disoriented and have identity and confidence issues. Former military personnel report feeling disoriented, alienated from the rest of the community around them, sad over the loss of friendships, and sometimes devastated over the loss of lives among their military family members that sustained and protected them in critical situations.This may destabilize them, leading to a severe identity crisis for some.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. One significant factor is the inability of veterans to transition to civilian life. It is profoundly shocking and particularly sad that our young male veterans, those under age 30, are at the highest risk with a suicide rate of 79.1 per 1,000. The rate among other American males is 25 per 1,000. It is also important to note that anxiety, aggression, depression and suicide among veterans is not exclusively an American problem. Our allies also report many of the same troubling, complex issues among their veterans.

Insights that contribute to the success of  veteran students on campus are:

1.  Student veterans are a highly diverse group—as diverse as America itself. However, the symptoms of PTSD and TBI are consistent in an estimated twenty percent of student veterans.

2. Veteran students can feel very alone on campus.

Civilian life emphasizes cooperation and conciliation in relationships. Military training emphasizes aggression, even though it also includes teamwork training. Transition to civilian life and higher education requires adjustment.

3. Mild, but traumatic brain injuries may be undiagnosed..

Research on combat veterans shows that explosions can cause unrecognized concussions. Combat soldiers may not even be aware that they have experienced repeated brain trauma from many types of detonated explosive devices. Concussion may have long-term academic and social consequences. Difficulties with reaction time, short-term memory, working memory and cognitive processing speed are some of the symptoms. Even veteran students who have been consistently bombarded with emotionally trying situations that are not directly combat-related, sustain a type of trauma that can manifest in behaviors similar to those related to concussion trauma. The veteran may not be aware of it. Faculty can help by heightened awareness of the potential special needs of veteran students and by learning about simple ways to accommodate them (Lighthall,2012). Difficulties with memory, attention and concentration, as well as mental processing, abstract reasoning, and executive functioning are problems seen in about 20 percent of student veterans. Even veteran students without the detonation concussion that can occur in actual combat, have been identified with trauma caused by exposure to intensely emotional situations over long periods of time. Again, they may not be aware.

4. Female veterans frequently suffer significantly in silence.

Women now make up about 15 percent of today’s military. Many times, females in the military suffer in silence. As a group, they tend to be more introverted than male counterparts. Peer relationships  and the support of other women who have had similar work, deployment hardships and/or trauma experiences help. 

To be sure, female veterans have all of  the same issues as male veterans with an extra layer of complexity. It is well documented that females in the military are frequently subjected to gender bias, sexual harassment and sexual assault, now called "unwanted sexual contact" by the military (Scarboro,2014). According to the VA, about one-in-five female veterans have post-traumatic stress related to incidents that include everything from sexual harassment to rape (kitfield,2011). Frequently, women in the military who report grievances or crimes do not receive the respect and support they deserve.  Too often, they suffer retaliation and career-damaging consequences as punishment for their truthfulness.  

5. Combat trauma is an injury.

Combat trauma is not a mental illness. It is an injury.  The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) identifies specific symptoms related to the effects of trauma causing PTSD (APA, 2013).

6. Some veterans may look very well and physically fit but they are still in recovery. Veterans benefit from understanding, compassion, respect and a feeling of acceptance. Many are transitioning while attending classes.

Experience and research confirms that being able to get together with other veterans helps to sort out and cope with unique feelings related to military and combat service. Being with others who have had similar experiences provides a "comfort zone" and adds a sense of security, making it easier for veteran students to participate outside of his/her veteran community. This is a strong argument for a Veterans Center on campus.

7. Veteran students are motivated. As a group, they are goal-oriented, mission-driven, and many can exercise experience-based leadership.

8. Being with peers is important.

Having common experiences and sharing with peers makes it easier for a student veteran to successfully participate with the community at large.

This is the same approach used in many recovery programs and has a history of success.

9. Student veterans are a great asset to campus life.

Providing student veterans with the necessary support to ensure success in college will have a positive result for each veteran and for our communities. Veterans have given us their service and now we must collectively extend our service to them.

10. Veterans programs should receive specific attention as one of the necessary special needs programs in any college or university.

____________________________

Author

Dr. Bernard Luskin,LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and School Psychologist, has been a PTSD counselor. He is a U.S. Navy Veteran who served on a guided missile ship that was part of a global expeditionary force. Dr. Luskin has been CEO of eight colleges and universities and provides special professional services to educational, corporate and military organizations. He is presently Chancellor, Ventura County Community College District and is past Chairman of the Board of The American Association of Community Colleges. Email comments to: BernieLuskin@gmail.com

Special Thanks to Toni Luskin, Ph.D and Susana Bojorques, MA for their assistance in preparing and posting this article.

Note: Moorpark College, Oxnard College, and Ventura College are members of the Ventura County Community College District, Ventura County, California.

References:

APA. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, Fifth Edition, 5 (5th ed.). Arlington. American Psychological Association.

California Veterans Resource Book (2015) California Department of Veterans Affairs.

Kitfield,J. (2011),  September 15, 2012) The Enemy Within. National Journal Magazine.

Lighthall, A. (2012). Ten Things You Should Know About Today's Student Veteran. [Veteran Students, Mental Health]. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 10.

Scarboro, R. (2014) Doubts on military's sex assault stats as numbers far exceed those for the U.S., The Washington Times.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2014.) Summary of Veterans Benefits, FY2000 to FY 2011.  Link:www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/Utilization/Summary_of_Veterans_Benefits_2011_FI... 

Wallis, D., (2015) Coming Home from War to Hit the Books, New York Times.

Wortzel, H.S. Arciniegas, D.B. (2013) A Forensic Neuropsychiatric Approach to Traumatic Brain Injury, Aggression, and Suicide, (Medical: Neuro Science). Journal of the American Accademy of Psychiatry Law 2013, 41(2), 274-286