From: Daily Camera
The number of young veterans committing suicide nationally spiked dramatically from 2009 to 2011, a trend that University of Colorado officials say they hope to confront by integrating services on the Boulder campus and removing the stigma around asking for help.
Data released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Services earlier this month found a 44 percent increase in suicides among young veterans between 2009 and 2011, the most recent data available.
Suicides among 18- to 29-year-old male veterans increased from 40.3 per 100,000 in 2009 to 57.9 per 100,000 in 2011. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, that rate increased by more than 70 percent, from 46.1 to 79.1 per 100,000 veterans.
George Ballinger, assistant vice chancellor and director of parent relations, said there haven't been any veteran suicides in recent years among the 1,000 or so veterans and dependents on campus, and he hopes to keep it that way.
CU does not track suicides among the general student body, according to spokesman Ryan Huff.
"I'm knocking on wood that we don't see that kind of trend (on campus)," Ballinger said."Honestly I can't remember a suicide that we've had on campus who has been a veteran in my three years (here). We all fear that that's a potential risk so we're all taking a proactive approach because we've heard the statistics, and I know it's a national problem."
Age gap, differing life experience pose adjustment challenges
VA officials have said the increase could be caused by the pressures of readjusting to civilian life and injuries such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
On a college campus, readjusting to civilian life can be even tougher because of the age gap between traditional undergraduate students and veterans, the amount of life experience veterans have compared to their peers and triggering moments, such as class discussions around the morality of war. Some student veterans have families and some work full time.
At the same time, a college campus can provide structure, a purpose, camaraderie and often has centrally located services like medical care, psychological and counseling care and more, Ballinger said.
CU officials say they expect the number of veterans on campus to increase as more troops return home from the Middle East and begin utilizing the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which went into effect in 2009 and helps veterans with financial support for education and housing.
In the next five years, an estimated 2 million additional veterans are expected to enter the higher education system, said CU veteran services director Stew Elliott.
Elaine Hanson, a clinical psychologist at Wardenburg Health Center who specializes in PTSD and head injury treatment, said CU created a web of connected services around campus to help veterans succeed in their new civilian lives as students.
Hanson said the university has also done a better job in recent years informing veterans about services through new student orientation, the veteran services office and the Student Veterans Association, a student-run group on the Boulder campus.
"We put together a network from veteran services to student affairs to health services to anticipate we're going to get more and more veterans to be able to handle this as it comes through," Hanson said. "Veterans are getting better at accessing those services.
" Initially there was some resistance, but as word came out that we were not monsters and didn't bite, we've seen more and more veterans come over and say 'I need to talk to somebody or I need medications. I'd like to do it here rather than at the VA because you guys are right here and you understand my struggles as a student.'"
'I can get them to a resource'
Last May the university hired Elliott, a combat veteran himself, to head up the programs and services offered to veterans on campus. Knowing that he understands some of what young veterans are feeling helps them open up and ask for help, he said.
"When they come in, they immediately break that barrier," Elliott said. "I can't diagnose a problem, but I can get them to a resource."
Having other student veterans to talk to through the Student Veterans Association on the Boulder campus also helps to erase some of the stigma associated with asking for help. A Counseling and Psychological Services staff member holds office hours once a week in the veterans services office so that students feel more comfortable talking to a counselor.
In the last three or so years, a committee called the CU Veterans Working Group has met once a quarter so that officials from academic affairs, Wardenburg Health Center, career services, disability services, financial aid, advising and other departments can get to know each other and refer student veterans to the appropriate office for help. The university also holds meetings every six months with the other CU campuses to talk about best practices around veteran care and services.
Starting this semester, the career services office will have an employee dedicated to helping veterans find work after graduation, Elliott said. And in a few months, Elliott hopes to take a proposal to Provost Russell Moore about mandatory veteran awareness training for all faculty and staff.
Jason Cowan, a 28-year-old undergraduate at CU who spent eight years as a naval fleet marine force corpsman, works as the events coordinator in the veteran services office.
Cowan and other work-study employees try to make the office a friendly environment for veterans so they feel comfortable letting their guards down and asking for help.
"You can't go anywhere else on the campus and feel as safe as you can in our office," he said. "We've been told that time and again. It's their safe haven. It's the one place they don't have to keep looking over their shoulder."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106 or firstname.lastname@example.org