Suicide and Student Veterans

Those returning from military service experience significantly more suicidal thoughts than non-veterans, a new study finds -- and authors say colleges can do better.
August 5, 2011

A greater proportion of student veterans have considered and attempted suicide compared to their non-veteran peers, and the difference is particularly stark in some areas, according to a study released Thursday at an American Psychological Association meeting in Washington.

Nearly half of student veterans – 46 percent – said they have experienced suicidal thoughts, 20 percent said they have planned a suicide, and 10.4 percent reported suicidal thinking on a frequent basis. (These responses are not mutually exclusive.)

A straight comparison of the data to those for the general student population is difficult because the format and phrasing of the most comparable source, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, is differ somewhat from the veterans’ study. The former asks only two questions about suicide – have you ever “seriously considered” it and have you ever attempted it -- and in both cases, how recently.

In the veterans’ study, the authors found the statistical differences between their target demographic and the general student population to be considerably greater than the ACHA survey reflects. M. David Rudd, one of the study’s authors, said that for the total student population, the researchers excluded those who answered the question about suicidal thoughts and attempts "not in the last 12 months." He said they did this because, while there was also a “Never” option, it was unclear whether those students who chose the former may actually have meant the latter. As a result, the non-veteran figures used in the study may understate the extent of suicidal thoughts and actions in the general student population.

Regardless, according to data from spring 2010, the most recent available, 18.7 percent of students overall report having seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives. That’s less than half the proportion of veterans who have considered it in any capacity. (Among the veterans, 82 percent of those who had attempted suicide also reported significant signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

Of course, comparing the two groups is complicated for other reasons as well. Not only have veterans had vastly different life experiences from traditional students, and likely far more opportunities to fully realize suicidal thoughts, they’re older; the average survey respondent was 26.

“When you reinforce violence and the profession of arms in someone,” said Brian Hawthorne, who is pursuing his master’s degree at George Washington University after returning from Baghdad in 2008 and is also a board member at Student Veterans of America, "and then you take that away, those kinds of tendencies don’t go away overnight.”

It’s the culture shock of that transition that presents unique challenges for student veterans – and that is more often than not lost on everyone else, Hawthorne and others said. “The transition in and of itself is a very challenging one, especially at traditional schools, where maybe 95 percent of your peers have no concept of what your life has been like. Which leads to a very lonely existence,” Hawthorne said. Among the survey sample, 98 percent had been deployed and nearly 60 percent had been in combat. “We spend a lot of time taking the civilian out of the soldier. We don’t spend a lot of time putting the civilian back in.”

The survey is positive in that it highlights the new attention being paid to issues, said Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Student Veterans of America, which distributed the survey to its 400 college and university chapters. (Another item of note is the small sample size – 525 students.) But, he cautioned, there’s a fine line between raising awareness of student veteran issues and scaring other people away.

Last fall, the Community College of Baltimore County banned a student from class for writing an essay about the thrill of killing in war, and said he could return only after completing a psychological evaluation. Earlier this year he gave up on returning, he said, after trying unsuccessfully to meet the college’s requirements. (Some said the college overreacted; veterans often struggle with how to write about their experiences in an academic environment.)

“It’s important that we don’t frighten higher education administrators because we’re generalizing,” Dakduk said, noting that people on campuses often automatically and often incorrectly believe that every veteran struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts. “They can’t just assume.” This tendency illustrates the importance of setting up policies and training procedures to help people not only understand the problems that can arise from the startling culture transition from the military to college, but also identify the veterans who are in fact struggling and recognize when they’re at risk.

Rudd, who is also scientific director for the National Center for Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah, said that while general awareness is growing, from what he’s seen anecdotally, institutions don’t seem ready for the hundreds of thousands of student veterans who, thanks to the GI Bill and a decade of war winding down, will soon be going to college.

If colleges were to partner more with the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs – as the University of Texas at Austin did when it was awarded a grant to hire a VA psychologist to work on its campus – they could better keep student veterans from getting lost in the equation, Rudd said.

“I’m just not convinced that, one, campuses understand the magnitude of the problem, and two, are very well-prepared to deal with it,” Rudd said. One reason for the general lack of understanding, he said, is the lack of research into what student veterans need, how they experience college and even, down to the institutional level, how many of them are on campuses. “We need to be aware that there’s a problem, not over-respond, and we need to work with those groups who are going to help the most – which is student veterans.”

Hawthorne agrees; in fact, four years ago he started the student group GW Veterans in hopes of raising awareness on the campus and getting his peers into meetings where the policies are developed and decisions are made. A working administrative group that meets somewhat frequently to address student veteran issues regarding everything from counseling to admissions – and always with student veteran representation at the table – is crucial, Hawthorne said. (And, as GW president Steven Knapp has acknowledged publicly, it has worked.) After all, he says, in a sense, these students are a diverse minority group.

“The GI Bill gets you in the door,” Hawthorne said. “What gets you to graduation is a positive environment, supportive peers, supportive faculty, trained and educated staff, and just general outreach.”


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