More than 14 years ago, a young Marine came into my office at a health center on our college grounds and asked me, “Can you help me set up a veterans center on campus?”
My initial thought was, “I know little about veterans,” but I agreed to make it happen. My research has begun.
I designed two veteran resource centers at two colleges, wrote over $ 4 million in grants to support our veterans, and wrote four research reports about the difficulties of transitioning from the military with guidelines on how we can improve the performance of veterans entering our public colleges. In my research, I worked with a team of experts, completed pilot programs to see what works and what doesn’t, and essentially created a template to help a veteran transition into civilian – and college – life.
A close friend of mine, who is a major general, once told me that the military breaks down our young men and women when they enlist in the military to teach them the “military lifestyle”. The question I asked about our veterans, when they are fired, is who can restore them to civilian life? When I visited Fort Bliss, I asked this question to a colonel who served as my guide. I told him I feel like the military is just throwing our men and women around the street when they’re done with them. He disagreed, but I told him, “You know how I know that? Because my colleagues and I are picking them up on the street corners. “
Fortunately, veterans can enroll in the public colleges system through easy access and use their GI Bill education benefits to pay for tuition, meals and housing. California Community Colleges have done exceptional work to develop Veterans Resource Centers (VRCs) at many of the state’s 116 colleges. About 90 colleges Currently, the state has VRCs that operate at different levels. VRCs work as the only place for veterans to apply for benefits, access educational plans and receive mental health support. They essentially act as a place of healing after numerous deployments and after injuries, both physical and mental, received during military service.
I assembled a team to conduct research across the California Public College system and found data indicating ongoing needs for intervention and prevention of medical problems such as tinnitus and musculoskeletal injuries (including shoulder, knee, and back injuries) as well. also for mental health issues including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
For our latest report entitled “Mental health of veterans and support for transition”(2021), we surveyed 483 veterans enrolled in 71 colleges across the state and found that mental health problems among veteran students are significant. Two-fifths said they received an official diagnosis of anxiety or depression, and another fifth said they may suffer from anxiety or depression. More than half of veteran students are either diagnosed or feel they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One-fourth reported social isolation, and more than two-fifths reported moderate and severe anxiety. Even more shocking, 33 percent said they thought they would end their lives, and 11 percent said they self-harmed, not wanting to die.
We need to advocate for changes in the Army and the Veterans Department’s health care system to better prevent and treat health problems ranging from tinnitus to PTSD. Meanwhile, in our colleges the research we have completed shows the way to innovative software solutions to solve problems.
To meet the health needs of veteran students, the following components must be created:
- Provide initial admission to the VRC when enrolling for all veterans each semester and add a free mental health survey as a standard component.
- Expand access to mental health services within VRC. Add groups and specific targeted programs dedicated to issues such as drug addiction, PTSD, and the formation of skills and tools to adapt to military life.
- Start marketing campaigns for prevention and intervention, as well as social media campaigns to combat suicidal thoughts, how to identify signs and where to go.
- Develop peer-to-peer mentoring programs that include a system of friends for veterans upon admission to your college. Monitor weekly and monthly to make sure needs are met and questions are answered.
- Create campus programs to meet the needs of our veterans. Identify campus services and individuals by name, not just give veterans a number to call.
- Simplify access to VA support and enrollment services and provide advocates to help and support students in accessing VA admissions and meeting their medical and mental needs.
In conclusion, I found two components in our study that contribute to veterans ’success. The first component is to promote a holistic environment where veterans are welcomed and all stakeholders, including resources for mental health and well-being, are in one place. The second component is to be authentic and build trust. Veterans need to trust those who are now in their lives: you need to build a unit like in the army. Finally, make sure that those you ask to support our veterans really care, really want to be around and really want to serve those who have served.