Michael Zuelsdorff was a sophomore student at the University of Wisconsin majoring in Forestry until he tragically took his own life on March 3, 2012. Sadly, this loss further highlights a growing mental health trend that veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing.
Zuelsdorff, 33, was a Sergeant First Class in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. He joined the army in 1997 and spent over 15 years in service to this country, deploying to Kuwait and Iraq. His most recent unit of assignment was the 273rd Engineer Company in Medford, Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, stories like Zuelsdorff’s are becoming too common. While veterans account for only one percent of Americans, they represent 20 percent of the suicides in the United States, according to the Veterans Administration (VA). The VA estimates a veteran dies from suicide every 80 minutes.
As the student veteran population grows on campuses around the country, so must the infrastructure to include mental health resources. During the post World War II years, colleges and universities scrambled to provide for the physical and emotional needs of the nation's returning war veterans. The climate was obviously quite different with nearly 50% of all college students around the country categorized as veterans. Today, only an estimated 3-4% of the student population on campus has some form of military service.
According to statistics by the VA, over 386,000 men and women who served in the military are compensated through federal disability for service-related anxiety disorders (Veterans Administration, 2010). This number continues to rise and should serve as a warning flag for all institutions, as many of these veterans are seeking to either begin or complete their college education during these tough economic times.
Rising veteran enrollments combined with academic faculties who likely do not possess a breadth of experience accommodating post-war students, coupled with limited counseling and outreach support structures leaves an academic institution “mentally” unprepared. As we look around the campus, we generally associate our successful students with possessing traits such as communicating effectively, maintaining healthy relationships, able to juggle numerous tasks and meet deadlines, critical thinkers, goal oriented and overtly serving others. In contrast, imagine a campus environment where students seem distant, unfriendly, possessing a feeling they are constantly judged or shunned for their view, distant, overly serious, agitated, and see themselves as alone and unable to fit the social paradigm of the majority (Armstrong, Best & Domenici, 2006). For many veteran students on campus this is reality.
The number of American service-members sustaining combat injuries as a result of their support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has exceeded 45,000. As a result of improvements in medical technology, as well as advances in war-fighting technology, the number of Americans surviving major combat injuries is unprecedented in our nation's history. For many, the resulting disability may have profound implications, not only for their future, but also that of the nation. Approximately 20% of these survivors suffer head or spinal injuries, 18% suffered serious wounds that resulted in a physical or mental impairment, and over 6% are amputees. More than 4,000 of our nations sons and daughters have suffered some sort of brain injury, and in half of these cases, the trauma will have lasting implications for their capacity related to memory, mood, behavior, and ability to work.
Beyond the physical wounds, there is the nature of war and particularly, how this war is being fought (Improvised Explosive Devices, an often unknown or unseen enemy, civilian causalities, human atrocities and etc.) directly contributes to the rising rates of Post-Traumatic Stress experienced by returning service-members. It is estimated of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, 30% of those who served in a combat theatre will transition from military to civilian life with a meaningful physical or psychological disability. Some experts argue this estimate is extremely conservative.
Take action on your campus and be prepared
Disability representatives on campus can play a key role in assisting veteran students in feeling more safe, secure, and understood on campus through awareness (Rumann & Hamrick, 2009, p. 31). For instance, accommodations for PTSD could include a number of passive classroom modifications, such as a separate testing environment that is free from distraction, extended testing times to reduce memory recall pressure, or providing tools such as note taking devices for students who have a difficulty with listening, processing what is spoken and writing at the same time.
Additionally, campus veteran representatives should spearhead efforts to provide experiential training to faculty and staff members, as well as advocate for increasing budgets, additional resources and facilities to further accommodate the needs of these learners. Lipscomb University recently hosted a workshop in July of this year with the goal of educational awareness in this area for both campus clinical providers and university staff. By teaming up with other universities such as Vanderbilt and non-profit organizations such as the Center For Deployment Psychology, schools like Lipscomb are better arming themselves with the tools and knowledge needed to best accommodate this growing veteran demographic. However, practicing the art of discretion is key when working to provide such accommodations and educating campus faculty and staff. Veterans generally desire to blend in as much as possible with the mainstream student population and to be a part of their academic environment, not separate themselves from it. There is a fine-line with balancing the needed support structure while pursuing the ultimate goal of integration!
It is equally important for university administrators to not only provide the necessary cognitive accommodations one would expect, but strive continuously to make the campus atmosphere feel safe and accommodating for veteran students. This can be accomplished through the use of classroom layouts that allow veteran students to position themselves within the room such that they are not postured with backs near windows, doorways or at the front of the classroom facing away from the majority of the class. Students could similarly be allowed the time to integrate and participate in classroom activities at their own pace, without pressure to immediately engage openly in group activities, and/or being singled-out for non-participation.
A step any University can take today is to develop a process to identify and provide fellow student mentors for new students. This can be as simple as pairing the new student with a current veteran student or as detailed as paring new students with a veteran student within the same degree program, close in age, same gender, and etc. This has proven to be very important during the initial year of transition onto a collegiate campus. University professionals should be equipped to provide information to students concerning veteran student groups, counseling services and social networking events that have tangibility (DiRamio & Spires, 2009). However, institutions should be cautious regarding publicly advertising mental health and social services that are targeted specifically at veteran students and circulating materials concerning homelessness, domestic violence or other veteran related issues around campus. This can unintentionally provide the student body with a message that incites fear instead of cultivating acceptance.
By cultivating a healthy understanding of the causes, signs, symptoms, functions, and coping mechanisms associated with PTSD and other mental health challenges, institutions of higher learning across the nation will be able to make the necessary changes in student services and classroom procedures with a minimum impact on their bottom-line. As education administrators, we have an obligation to provide reasonable and necessary accommodations to ensure that our veteran students have the best opportunity for a success as they transition from fighting our nations battles to securing their future through education. In doing so, we all win!