David Sandman

When Congress passed the post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008, it opened the doors to college for thousands of deserving veterans.

The funding covers tuition, housing, books, and other expenses for a four-year education. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of returning veterans on college campuses grew from 500,000 to 1 million, and the number continues to grow. But access to higher education is no guarantee of success. These students need more than financial aid.

Returning veterans face a unique set of challenges, and American universities are often ill equipped to serve them.

The “invisible wounds of war” are well known, and can have a significant impact on the college experience. While most veterans return home and adjust to civilian life without major difficulties, veterans who have suffered trauma have trouble adjusting to campus life and may have difficulty sleeping and concentrating. This puts student veterans at higher risk for dropping out of institutions that fail to provide them with support.

The mental health challenges of the transition period from the military to college are serious. Difficulty adjusting also puts student veterans at greater risk for self-harm: 46% of young veterans in college have thought about suicide, compared with 6% of their collegiate peers, according to the American Psychological Association.

Imagine you are a returning veteran. You have spent recent years in a highly structured environment, taught to follow orders and encouraged to show strength at all times. You may be conditioned to believe that reporting mental health challenges would have a negative impact on your future. Would you ask for help, even if you need it?

The adjustment can take a heavy toll. Most colleges have extensive mental health and wellness services, and yet, military veterans have trouble finding support they trust on campus. Many campus health and wellness providers have spent years developing successful marketing programs to reach traditional students. They promote their expertise with academic stress, eating disorders, alcohol misuse, and similar challenges. Veterans dealing with PTSD can feel like fish out of water in that environment. They need counselors who can spark confidence by communicating that they understand the particular challenges veterans face.

College campuses are not unique in this way. A recent study found a glaring need to increase health care professionals’ ability to provide culturally competent care to vets. It is particularly important to address this issue on close-knit college campuses; if a student veteran has a negative experience with a health provider, news of that experience will spread through veteran peer groups, and could inhibit other veterans from seeking treatment.

In partnership with the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, the New York Health Foundation has invested in an innovative program with the potential to change the way colleges serve veterans. SUNY New Paltz has developed a training program that builds the cultural competency of health care providers on campuses throughout the SUNY system. The one-day workshop enables campus health and wellness staff, as well as other staff who have regular contact with veterans, to enhance their understanding of and empathy for military culture. It is based on the Star Behavioral Health Providers curriculum, an evidence-based training program that has been evaluated and shown to be highly effective.

SUNY New Paltz has already conducted workshops on 15 SUNY campuses across New York State. The response has been positive, with attendees reporting that they expect to change the way they work with veterans.

This program is showing great promise and could be a model not only for helping returning veterans succeed in college, but also for using college as an opportunity to provide vital mental health services. SUNY is now considering expanding the program to reach staff on all of its campuses. This bodes well for the 33,000 veterans in college across New York State. More important, it is a model for schools seeking to improve care for veterans across the country. Most important of all, it is a call to action to address the needs of the veterans who have proudly served our country by making campuses the supportive environments they need to thrive.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York Health Foundation
Published in Medium on March 18, 2019

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