PTSD not solely a battlefield issue for college students

By Dan Glaun

The image is iconic, made widely recognizable by decades of films, television and photography. The veteran, in a military hospital or on the streets, casting the 1,000-yard-stare typified by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is not, however, solely a battlefield issue. Affected veterans, as well as victims of sexual assault and other forms of violence, have to cope with its effects in their daily lives. For college students who suffer from PTSD, the disorder presents unique challenges.

Seven to eight percent of the United States population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, with 5.2 million people suffering from the disorder during any given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Those figures vary widely depending on demographics; women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, and between 11 and 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans suffer from it.

The average age of onset for PTSD is 23, according to the National Institutes of Health. Based on that figure, almost half of all PTSD cases are present during or prior to the typical ages of university undergraduates.

SuEllen Hamkins, a psychiatrist at University Health Services at the University of Massachusetts, described how PTSD can affect college students, both socially and academically.

“Trauma can make people feel withdrawn from the world,” Hamkins said, adding that this withdrawal can manifest in a sense of disconnection and lack of interest in things that the person previously enjoyed. “These sorts of things can affect [patients’] academic performance if they’re unable to concentrate.”

However, according to Hamkins, most PTSD sufferers cope well with support. Treatment options include therapy, the creation of safe spaces where people can discuss their traumatic experiences and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – a therapy that involves the visualization of traumatic events in order to help with the coping process.

“The body and the psyche really [have] great skill at healing. Most people who suffer from PTSD will have a complete recovery from it,” she said, adding that most college students with the disorder are academically successful.

For UMass students with PTSD, the campus offers several services that provide resources and medical support. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH), a branch of UHS, offers treatment and, according to CCPH project coordinator Nupur Jain, employs clinicians who specialize in PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Veterans have several options for support on campus, including the UMass office of Veteran’s Services and veterans’ registered student organization VeteranONE. The Everywoman’s Center provides counseling services and maintains a 24-hour rape crisis hotline for victims of sexual assault.

Additionally, a newly minted veteran’s housing community, titled “The Barracks,” will offer veterans-only living accommodations in Cashin Dormitory in the Sylvan Residential Area starting next fall, according to Residential Life’s website.

Frank Bayles, transitional patient advocate at the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA), addressed the challenges that veterans can face when they return home and attend school.

“I think the biggest issue is just readjustment to civilian life … a lot of them are coming back to no job. They don’t necessarily have the means to support themselves,” he said. “There’s a whole slew of VA benefits they have to sort of have to wade through. The VA and military are really trying to do their best to market the benefits … but there’s a big information gap that still exists.”

Bayles said student sufferers of PTSD face additional obstacles, including lack of sleep, inability to focus their attention and higher rates of substance abuse.

“PTSD guys have a tendency to isolate, so going in crowded places or sitting in a lecture hall of a 100 people is not going to be conducive for them to learn,” he said.

There has been a marked improvement in support services offered to veterans by universities, according to Bayles. He praised the programs offered at UMass, saying that his department is increasingly coordinating outreach efforts with the UMass Veterans Services office.

“UMass has a fantastic organization … just about every college that we talk to now has a veterans’ organization,” he said, “Just having that camaraderie – being able to walk in [to a campus veterans’ organization] and have another vet to talk to is huge.”

Dan Glaun can be reached at [email protected].