More than 14 years ago, a young Marine walked into my office on our college campus health center and asked me, “Can you help me build a Veterans Center on campus?”
My initial thought was “I don’t know much about veterans,” but I agreed. My research begins.
I have created two Veterans Resource Centers in two colleges, I have written more than 4 million in grants to support our veterans, and I have written four research reports on the difficulties of transitioning from the military, including guidelines on how we can improve our success rate. Veterans who are admitted to our community college. In my research, I worked with a team of experts, completed pilot programs to see what worked and what didn’t, and created a template for how to help an experienced person transform into civilian-and-college-life.
A close friend of mine, a Major General, once told me that the military disbanded our young men and women when they entered active-duty status to build their “military lifestyle.” One question I asked about our veterans when they were released was: Who has the resources to rebuild their civilian lives? When I visited Fort Bliss, I asked this question to the colonel who acted as my guide. I told him I felt like the military was throwing our men and women into the street when they were working. He disagreed, but I told him, “You know how I know this? Because my co-workers and I are picking them up on the street corner.”
Fortunately, seniors are able to enter the community college system because of easy access and can use their GI bill education facilities for tuition, food and accommodation expenses. Community colleges in California have done an exceptional job of creating Veterans Resource Centers (VRCs) in many of the 116 colleges in the state. Approximately 90 colleges across the state currently have VRCs operating at different levels. VRCs serve as a one-stop location for veterans to apply for benefits, access educational plans, and receive mental health support. They serve primarily as a place of healing after numerous installations received while serving in the military and after both physical and mental injuries.
I assembled a team to conduct research across the California Community College system and found data revealing the ongoing need for intervention and prevention for tinnitus and muscular injuries (including shoulder, knee and back injuries), as well as treatment issues for mental health. Problems including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
For our recent report, entitled “Veteran Mental Health and Transition Support” (2021), we surveyed 483 experienced soldiers enrolled in 71 colleges across the state and found that mental health problems among student seniors were substantial. Two-fifths said they had received a formal diagnosis of anxiety or depression, and another one-fifth believed they were suffering from anxiety or depression. More than half of the alumni are either diagnosed or think they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One-fourth reported social isolation and more than two-fifths experienced moderate to severe anxiety. More surprisingly, 33 percent indicated they thought they would end their lives, and 11 percent reported self-harm because they did not want to die.
To better prevent and treat health problems ranging from tinnitus to PTSD, we need to advocate for changes in the healthcare system in the military and veteran affairs. In the meantime, in our colleges we have completed a way towards innovative programmatic solutions to solve problems.
To meet the health care needs of student veterans, the following components should be included:
- Provide an initial acceptance to the VRC after enrollment for all veterans each semester and add free mental health screening as a standard component.
- Increase access to mental health services within the VRC. Add groups and specific targeted programs, focusing on issues such as building skills and tools to adapt to addiction, PTSD, and military life.
- Start marketing prevention and intervention and start social media campaigns to tackle suicidal thoughts, how to assess for symptoms and where to go.
- Develop peer-to-peer mentoring programs that include a friend system for veterans after enrolling in your college. Follow up weekly and monthly to make sure demand is met and questions are answered.
- Create campus programs to meet the needs of our seniors. Identify campus services and individuals by name instead of just giving a number to call seniors.
- Streamline access to support services and enroll in VA Healthcare and provide advocates to assist and assist students in accessing VA appointments and meeting their treatment and mental health needs.
In conclusion, I found two factors in our research that promote the success of veterans. The first component is to promote a holistic environment where veterans are welcomed and all support agencies, including resources for mental health and wellness, are in one place. The second element is to be authentic and to build trust. Veterans need to trust those who are in their lives now: they need to build a unit like they did in the military. And last but not least, the headline made you read this article.