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Supporting Student Veterans’ Mental Health During and After the COVID-19 Crisis

Region IV-W
April 17, 2020 Phillip Olt Fort Hays State University

22-a-day. This is perhaps the most well-known statistic about veterans’ suicide in the United States. Research data have varied on what the number is exactly, but the range of 18-30 veteran suicides per day seems to be the consensus. Though any number greater than zero is bad, that daily tally does not really convey the dire nature of this situation. As reported on from data out of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the fall of 2019, more veterans committed suicide in the 2010s than died in the entire Vietnam War, with more than 60,000 suicides in that decade. This, truly, is an astonishing number.

Right now, we are at a point of worldwide crisis with the continued isolation brought by COVID-19, and student veterans are among the most vulnerable populations for mental health issues. College benefits are well known to be a primary reason for enlistment, and so we have seen a wave of servicemembers exist military service and enter our institutions of higher education in the 2010s. These student veterans are now not only dealing with the ghosts of war (including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries) and the pressures of being a student, but they are also dealing with forced isolation and the fears of the COVID-19. This is, I believe, adding fuel to a somewhat out of control fire.

Perhaps most complicating this situation is that the military trains its members to bury their weaknesses. While this is utilitarian for military service, it also discourages help seeking behaviors. At a time when veterans are committing suicides at an alarming and increasing rate now magnified by COVID-19, it is more important than ever that campus services be proactive be interacting with their student veterans. Certainly, professors and academic advisors should be reaching out to all of their students; however, without targeted and proactive work targeted at student veterans’ mental health, the “22-a-day” statistic may need revision upward after this crisis, including our student veterans who face the added student pressures.

Things you can do:

  • Make sure that all student veterans at your institution are provided with mental health resources, both those of your institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Ensure that someone who has experience working with veterans and/or a mental health counselor from your campus personally reaches out to each student veteran about their mental health.

Proactive outreach targeted at the mental health of student veterans is necessary to help address this dangerous mix of conditions. Aside from those already diagnosed with mental health disorders, student veterans are among the most vulnerable population and in need of our deliberate support.