NYHealth Testimony on Services for Student Veterans

On January 31, 2023, the New York City Council Committees on Veterans and Higher Education held an oversight hearing on support services for student veterans at the City University of New York. NYHealth Senior Program Officer Derek Coy provided the following testimony sharing his own experience as a student veteran at City College and highlighting opportunities to enhance services:

Thank you, Chairperson Holden and Chairperson Dinowitz and members of the Committees for the opportunity to provide testimony at today’s hearing focused on support services for student veterans at the City University of New York.

My name is Derek Coy, and I am a Senior Program Officer at the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth). I am also a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, veteran of the Iraq War, and—as a proud graduate of the City College of New York—a product of the CUNY system.

Understanding and addressing the health-related needs of New York’s veteran population is a fundamental part of my role at the Foundation, so I hope that both my personal and professional experiences can provide insight to guide and inform the work and knowledge of these committees.

In the years since my graduation from City College, there has been a growing focus on strengthening the City’s infrastructure to best serve veterans—evidenced by the work of these Committees and the City’s launch of the Department of Veterans’ Services in 2016. Having had the opportunity to partner with these and other agencies focused on supporting military veterans, I am proud of these collaborations and our collective accomplishments.

Characteristics of Student Veterans
As you may know, the overwhelming majority of veterans transition rather smoothly out of the service and back into communities like New York City once their time on active duty has come to an end.

Thanks to the grit developed and experiences gained in the military, in addition to incredible resources like the GI Bill, hundreds of thousands of veterans will go on to use the skills they’ve honed during their time in service to further their education and advance their careers. As a result, veterans earn more than our civilian counterparts, have higher GPAs, obtain higher levels of education, and often experience lower rates of unemployment.[1],[2],[3],[4]

Yet many veterans like me do face unique challenges after transitioning out of the military that can intensify if left unaddressed. Student veterans are no exception.

Because of their time in service, student veterans are typically older, more likely to have jobs off campus, and more likely to be parents than students with no military history. These work and familial responsibilities, coupled with higher rates of psychological symptoms and difficulties adjusting to the demands of academia, mean that transitioning out of the military and into a college environment can weigh heavily on student veterans. And that in turn can negatively impact their mental health—something I have personally experienced.

A “Deadly Gap” for Student Veterans with Mental Health Needs
Getting access to mental health care is a challenge for most Americans writ large, with nearly half who need it being unable to access care in 2021.[5] But student veterans face additional unique barriers that prevent them from getting the care they need, including stigma, a lack of culturally competent care, and trouble navigating complex systems such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care and benefits systems.

Access to mental health services is especially crucial given the epidemic of suicide among the veteran population:

  • Rates of veteran suicide in New York State have consistently remained nearly twice as high as our civilian counterparts.[6]
  • Suicidal ideation among student veterans is significantly higher than non-veteran students.[7]
  • Younger veterans, the population most likely to be enrolled in college, experience the highest rates of suicide in the State. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45.[8]

Dr. Marianne Goodman, a clinician at the Bronx VA, leading expert on veteran suicide, and NYHealth grantee, has published seminal research that describes the risks of a “deadly gap” for student veterans during this period of having limited mental health services and an increased risk of suicide after transitioning out of the service.

Navigating Resources and Experiencing Gaps at CUNY
Like many veterans who struggle, there was no singular cause—or solution—to my challenges as a student veteran. Years of unaddressed trauma and substance abuse issues rendered on-campus counseling resources inadequate; they were simply ill-equipped for the complex services I required. Paying out-of-pocket for off-campus care was not an option, since delays in GI Bill payments forced me to live my entire first semester without income. After constantly choosing between paying rent, buying food, and supporting my substance abuse in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the months of financial insecurity and social isolation took an increasing toll on my mental health as I teetered on the brink of homelessness.

The task of seeking out individual services for each issue, at the same time I was attempting to further my education, became an unbearable burden. Alone, it was impossible to navigate. Having access to comprehensive, coordinated services that offered one go-to place for help might have made things easier for me. Had there been widely disseminated information about challenges student veterans might anticipate encountering and about services available on and off campus, my time as a student veteran would have been drastically different.

Fortunately, today there are myriad resources that provide invaluable support to student veterans, many of which I wish I had access to as a student veteran myself.

This all became more clear last month as I spoke at the Student Veterans of America’s annual conference on understanding and navigating resources for veterans in higher education. It was apparent that many things have changed since I first walked through the doors of City College as a young graduate student myself more than a dozen years ago—most of which have had a positive impact on the lives of student veterans across the country. The VA’s expansion of mental health care eligibility for all transitioning veterans was not in place at that time. Dozens of community-based veterans service organizations would not exist until years after I graduated. Now student veterans have access to more centrally located resources than ever before, thanks to the creation of New York City’s Department of Veterans’ Services. In addition, we have an infinitely more comprehensive understanding of the veteran community and the specific issues certain populations face, including student veterans—making it imperative that we use these assets and knowledge to expand the reach and increase the quality of veteran-specific services both on campus and in communities.

It was also clear to me at that conference that navigating health care, mental health, and other resources can be even more challenging for student veterans today than it was in the past. It’s of course welcome news that various federal policies have increased access to VA health care and private sector services, but having more options can also feel overwhelming. And not every health provider understands the unique needs of veterans. Research from the RAND Corporation, commissioned by NYHealth, found that only about 2% of civilian physicians and other health care providers in New York State are equipped to provide timely, high-quality care to veterans in the community.[9]

Promising Solutions for Student Veterans
How can we ensure that student veterans have access to the services they need, without feeling overwhelmed as they pursue both higher education and improved health?

  1. Access to culturally competent services on campus. Like me, many veterans’ first contact with a mental health provider is on a college campus. But when the student health center staff lack an understanding of military culture and aren’t attuned to the unique challenges veterans face, it can prolong or delay their treatment. NYHealth has invested in expanding resources available to student veterans, most notably through our work with SUNY New Paltz to deliver an evidence-based veteran and military cultural competency curriculum specifically focused on the unique needs of student veterans. Project staff delivered trainings to college professionals from numerous departments, including health and wellness, student life, finance, and enrollment at 62 campuses across New York State, including 14 CUNY campuses. Ensuring that staff on campus are equipped to understand and address veteran-specific needs is critical.
  2. Access to mental health services in the community. Similarly, in the spirit of meeting student veterans where they are, the Foundation has invested in expanding the services of best-in-class mental health providers, such as the Headstrong Project and the NYU Langone Military Family Center—both of which were founded here in New York City. These providers directly address the barriers that prevent younger veterans from accessing mental health care by reducing stigma, eliminating costs, providing telehealth options, and addressing privacy concerns. We have also partnered with Stop Soldier Suicide to bring its innovative approach to identify, stabilize, and provide emergency mental health care to veterans at risk of suicide to the metro-New York City region. This program has served hundreds of local veterans since early 2020.
  3. Access to peer mentors. Sometimes, you don’t need a health care professional, you just need someone who can relate to you, veteran to veteran, when navigating life as a student veteran. New York State has invested $20 million to expand the successful Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program across the State. Locally, New York Cares last year recruited and trained 126 volunteers to provide “buddy checks” through telephone outreach to veterans in need, and the ETS (Expiration Term of Service) Sponsorship Program worked to expand the reach of its peer mentor program into New York City, assisting veterans with their transition before they leave active duty. Ensuring that CUNY students are aware of and connected to valuable resources like these and others will help expand the range of effective veteran-specific support services. Other schools offer potential models for CUNY to consider; for example, Teachers College uses clinicians to supervise veteran peer mentors, combining clinical and peer approaches.

We respect and share the Council’s commitment to New York City’s veterans. I hope you will look to the New York Health Foundation as a resource for your important work. And I hope that I personally can be of help as you address the needs of student veterans at CUNY. Despite not having all the resources or information I would have liked when I was a student veteran, the Marine Corps did an excellent job of teaching me how to make the most of what I did have. And what I had was a community of incredible service providers and fellow veterans who were ready to take me in once I made the first step toward getting my life back on track. It is my hope that I, with the help of the Committee and other people testifying today, can pay that forward so that every veteran who chooses to pursue higher education will have it easier than those who came before them. Thank you.

New York Health Foundation as a resource for your important work. Thank you.

Watch the video of the hearing (Derek Coy’s testimony begins at 2:51:00).


[1] Francesco Renna & Amanda Weinstein (2019) The veteran wage differential, Applied Economics, 51:12, 1284-1302, DOI: 10.1080/00036846.2018.1527445

[2] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, First Follow-up (BPS:12/14).

[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

[4] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation of Veterans, 2021.

[5] https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/news/more-than-4-in-10-us-adults-who-needed-substance-use-and-mental-health-care-did-not-get-treatment/.

[6] https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/2020/2020-State-Data-Sheet-New-York-508.pdf.

[7] Lake KN, Ferber L, Kilby DJ, Mourtada H, Pushpanadh S, and Verdeli H (2022). Qualitative Study Examining Perceived Stigma and Barriers to Mental Health Care Among Student Veterans. Journal of Veterans Studies, 8(3), pp. 239–252. DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/jvs.v8i3.379.

[8] https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/2022/2022-National-Veteran-Suicide-Prevention-Annual-Report-FINAL-508.pdf.

[9] Tanielian T, Farmer CM, Burns RM, Duffy EL, and Messan Setodji C, Ready or Not? Assessing the Capacity of New York State Health Care Providers to Meet the Needs of Veterans. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2298.html.