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Student vets grapple with feelings of suicide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 - Student veterans are more than twice as likely to think about suicide as other college students, but they are far less likely to seek professional counseling because of cultural stoicism.

Forty-six percent of student veterans have thought of suicide, compared with 18.7 percent of students overall, according to the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

More military veterans are sitting in college classrooms today than in previous years because of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. More than 400,000 veteran students applied for spring 2012 enrollment, according to theStudent Veterans of America, a nonprofit coalition of student veterans organizations.

Veteran students are typically older and more experienced than traditional college students and have acquired skills and knowledge that help them in the classroom.

But many combat veterans have mental-health problems stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder that may strain the collegiate mental health-care system.

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has one of the largest groups of veterans in the region. Rosemary Simmons, counseling center director, says the nearly 700 student veterans on campus seek counseling from the center at a lower rate than the overall student population.

Simmons says of the nearly 20,000 non-veteran students who attend the university, about 10 percent sought counseling during the 2010-2011 academic year. The figure is about 7-8 percent for the student veteran population, she says.

Nationally, the rate of student veterans seeking help was even lower, according to the national Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which collects statistics from 97 institutions. Only 2 percent of the clients at university mental-health clinics were veterans, compared with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where 6 percent of the clients were veterans.

“That’s been the trend for the last few years,” Simmons said. “SIUC veterans come in here at a higher rate than veterans do at other universities. So we’re really happy about that. I think part of that has been the work of Larry Stout.”

Stout, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Marion, Ill., about 18 miles from the university, says one of his goals is to reach out to all student veterans in the area and to help each individual veteran find the type of therapy that works best for him.

To meet that goal, he says he’s helped set up peer counseling groups at the university.

“On campus, groups of veterans create their own peer networks to give them someplace to go,” he says.

Fishing for a solution

For some student veterans, religious-based activities help them work through issues, while others find that outdoor recreation or academic clubs best suit their needs, Stout says.

Aaron Connor, a student veteran at the university, says fishing helped him readjust to civilian life after he returned from a 10-month tour in Afghanistan.

“The outdoors helped me get back to being 'me' when I came home from Afghanistan,” Connor says. “When I came home, the first thing they want to do is put you in therapy; my therapy was going out in a boat.”

Connor, a member of a student organization that promotes recreational bass fishing, organized a tournament in March that paired student veterans with skilled bass fishermen at nearby Lake of Egypt.

Marty Ramos, a student veteran at John A. Logan College in Cartersville, Ill. says although he was not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when he was discharged from the Navy in 2009, he’s experienced some symptoms associated with the disorder.

Ramos was an aviation equipment specialist stationed aboard the USS Enterprise in 2007 when the aircraft carrier was deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Ramos says being in a war zone at a time when the relationship between Tehran and Washington was strained, combined with 120-degree heat and back-to-back work shifts, caused him to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as difficulty sleeping, anxiety and problems with alcohol.

He says he didn’t think he had post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t seek help for his symptoms.

Simmons says military people often have a personality type that makes it difficult for them to seek help and that military training promotes self-reliance and stoicism.

“The indoctrination that you get in the military is all about teamwork, being strong, keeping things within your squadron, and so the idea of taking that information and giving it out, even in a private therapy setting, I think it sometimes feels disloyal,” she says.

Simmons says the Department of Defense studies on post-traumatic stress disorder are surprising.

“People who sign up for the military have a higher percentage of trauma history than the general public,” Simmons says. “It’s not uncommon for veterans to have had a trauma experience before.”

She says many young people join the military as a means of escaping poverty, abuse and alcoholism at home.  The military provides structure, a stable income, free health care and an opportunity for higher education, she says.

“The military can be very appealing for some kids who haven’t gotten all the resources they needed,” Simmons says.

Military inductees may already have had post-traumatic stress disorder before they deploy, she says, and when they experience a traumatic incident in a combat zone, complex post-traumatic stress disorder occurs.

Simmons says active duty troops who show signs of stress receive mandatory counseling, but as veterans, treatment is voluntary.

“That safety net that the military has is lost when they become a civilian,” she says.

Difficult transition to civilian life

Simmons says for many student veterans the transition from the military to student life is stressful and some student veterans have difficulty adjusting to a life with less structure.

Some veterans can’t understand their fellow students’ lack of self-discipline and disrespectful attitude to their professors, she says.

“It irritates the heck out of them when a student mouths back to a professor,” she says.

Simmons said student veterans deal with several issues simultaneously.

“The acculturation issues are going to be there anyway, and then if you put PTSD over it, and then complex PTSD over that, you have men and women who are dealing with a lot,” she says.

Student veterans often have behavioral problems stemming from feelings of guilt and a lack of purpose, Simmons says.

“We see the struggle of still feeling a great deal of loyalty and respect for who they served with, but then getting some distance and questioning the bigger reason behind it – whether it’s the politics of it – asking whether Afghanistan and Iraq are any better off than they were 10 years ago.”

The student veterans also feel anger about what they had to go through and ask themselves if they really helped the people of Afghanistan and Iraq as they promised they would, Simmons says.

“They wrote the letters that would go to the families talking about how their soldier died. They leave that, where they felt like they had a purpose and a mission, and they come back to civilian life and being a student,” she says.

She says the existential angst, or questioning the purpose of what they’re doing, is even greater for student veterans than for the general student population.

Another problem, Simmons says, is, unlike the Vietnam era when returning soldiers were sometimes blamed for their part in the war, today’s troops get thanked frequently for their service, but they don’t feel they deserve the praise because they think they either didn’t do enough or aren’t proud of what they did.

“I’ve seen this happen in airports or at restaurants where, if there’s someone in uniform, people go up and thank them, and for some veterans that’s very hard,” she said.

Sharon Wittke is a student as in the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She served 25 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring last year as a lieutenant colonel. These stories are part of a project of Midwest journalism schools, the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium. For other stories in this series, see IJEC.org.