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Diverse Conversations: College Life, Military Veterans, and Mental Illness

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Thousands of veterans are returning home each month and transitioning back to civilian life. For many, this includes going back to college or taking college courses. As they reintegrate into the routines of civilian life, special attention should be paid to easing the transition process and providing a supportive environment.

Dr. Victor Schwartz, Medical Director of The Jed Foundation, a leading not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting emotional health and preventing suicide among college students, answers a few questions regarding the mental health and transitional issues many U.S. veterans face and what college campuses are doing to address the issue.

Q: Is mental health and/or suicide an issue among military veterans returning to college?

A: Many veterans coming to college show great maturity, discipline, motivation and focus. Nevertheless a significant number of returning veterans have reported mental health challenges. These "hidden injuries of war" are not surprising given the challenges of serving in a combat zone. It is important that veterans struggling with emotional health issues get the support they need as unaddressed problems can lead to serious consequences like substance abuse or suicide. With the right support and treatment, veterans dealing with mental health issues can still have a smooth transition and a healthy future.

Q: What challenges do many veterans face when returning to daily life as a college student?

A: Challenges many veterans face can range from a missing the camaraderie from their troops or dealing with misunderstanding university faculty members and classmates to physical, mental or emotional wounds of war. These issues can magnify barriers and challenges that make earning a college degree difficult.

Q: What can the student body do to help a veteran acclimate back to daily life on campus?

A: There has been significant news coverage of the emotional and physical injuries that veterans deal with as a result of serving in a war zone. There are significant assets veterans bring because of their experience and training. If you know or attend school with a veteran, the best thing you can do is help them have a normal experience: let them decide how much they want to discuss or emphasize their service, and be patient as they acclimate to their new routine.

Q: What boundaries must we follow to respectfully communicate with student veterans?

A: It's sometimes easier for veterans to talk to each other than to civilians who may not fully understand their experiences, however, on campus, it's important that civilians and veterans communicate as members of the same college community. Sometimes, civilian students can feel uncomfortable talking to veterans because they don't know what is appropriate and what is off limits to discuss. Below are some tips for respectful communication from the Jed Foundation's Half of Us website:

• Welcome them home
• Offer to help with their transition to (or back to) campus
• Support with patience and listening
• Understand that the transition home is a process and can take time

Q: What signs should administrators or students be aware of regarding mental health of veterans?

A: Veterans who have experienced trauma in war and combat might suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), depression, and suicidal thoughts. It is important to know the warning signs of these conditions and, if there's a problem, how to get involved in order to help your friend or family member cope and begin to get well.

Common warning signs of a problem include:
• Hopelessness about the future
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Jumpiness and constant over-alertness
• Troubling dreams, memories or flashbacks
• Increased heart rate and rapid breathing
• Insomnia and constant exhaustion
• Increased smoking or alcohol, drugs and/or food consumption
• Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad, shocked and numb
• Irritability or agitation
• Self-blame, negativity or withdrawal

Q: How can I become an advocate for the student veterans on my campus?

A: There are many organizations that focus on making sure student veterans succeed in post-secondary programs. The Jed Foundation and the Bob Woodruff Foundation have created a training tool that helps campus health professionals understand the student veteran perspective, engage with them on campus, and provide the resources they need to succeed. You can support our troops by participating in The Bob Woodruff's ReMIND movement. You can also become an advocate by joining IAVA's (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) action network. There are also great resources available from Student Veterans of America and American Council on Education's website for military students and veterans.

Q: Where can I go for more information?

A: For more information, visit or

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