Student Veterans: A National Survey Exploring Psychological Symptoms and Suicide Risk

Abstract

“The current study explored psychological symptoms, symptom severity, and suicide risk in a national sample (N _ 628) of student veterans. We hypothesized that the rates, types, and severity of problems experienced by student veterans on campus would in many ways mirror those reported by active duty service members as well as the Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom veteran population. Almost 35% of the sample experienced “severe anxiety,” 24% experienced “severe depression,” and almost 46% experienced significant symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Of particular concern, there were significant numbers of participants thinking about suicide (46%), with 20% having a plan, 10.4% thinking about suicide “often or very often,” 7.7% making an attempt, and 3.8% believing that suicide is either “likely” or “very likely.” Implications of the findings are discussed, with a particular focus on college and university campuses.”

Implications

For Practice

2 million veterans will be returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF). As veterans return home from OEF/OIF we must not only learn to help them with their transition back into society, but also their transition into colleges and universities as well. The number of student veterans is expected to be extremely high as a result of the GI Bill Benefits. Whether or not college campuses are ready to accommodate the needs of student veterans is yet to be determined. According to Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD), in general the number of reported problems from counseling centers on campus were 38% depression, 40% anxiety, 9% self-injury, 11% substance abuse/dependence, 7% eating disorders, and 15% suicide thoughts and/or behaviors. Few studies have looked at the student veterans populations, and whether the counselors are trained adequately to deal with their exposure to combat and their unique physical, emotional and psychological issues. The Department of Defense has placed a specific focus on suicide and psychological problems in military members and has found that suicide is second in the cause of death of military service members. This research is one of the first national surveys focusing on student veterans and their transition into college. The survey included questions on demographic, college experience, military service history and psychological disorders. The results of the survey showed that 34.6% experience “severe anxiety”, 23.7% “severe depression”, 45.6% “PTSD”, 46% “suicidal thought at one point”, 20% “suicidal with a plan”, 10.4% “thinking of suicide often”, and 7.7% had “previous suicide attempts”. The results showed just how prevalent and grave these issues are, based on the sample group and severity compared to other groups. It is clear how important it is for student veterans to receive the care when  transitioning into a college atmosphere.

For Policy

There are many challenges that face student veterans transitioning into a college atmosphere. More supportive policies for transitioning veterans will enter into policy agenda soon, because of the expected increase in the number of student veterans. Veteran related policies should realize the scale of difficulty associated with student veterans’ experiences, providing more trained specialists to aid to student veterans’ needs. Colleges and Universities must be willing and able to have adequate support for their student veterans. Counselors must be specially trained to deal with issues that are relevant to student veterans, such as PTSD and combat exposure. This research points out that even, “these numbers are alarming, not only in comparison to the modal college or university student, but also in contrast to VA clinical populations” in that there is a large number that are experiencing significant psychiatric symptoms, with a considerable number of heightened risk for suicide. Veteran related policies should provide more support to discover what other problems the student veteran population face and other ways that student veterans can be helped.

For Future Research

Though research is clear in revealing the severity and frequency of issues related to the student veteran population, policies to reduce the extent of these issues do not currently exist. Research needs to sample a larger frame, as the current sampling frame is not large enough to constitute generalization to the population. It would also be beneficial for the domains of the survey to be expanded to other issues beyond psychological problems (for example, physical disabilities) that could possibly play a part in development of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Further research should be conducted to analyze possible solutions to aid in mental wellness for student veterans and reduce PTSD, anxiety, and Depression.

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