For veterans

For Armed Services Veterans Returning to College

The transition to college after military life can be a difficult one, especially after a deployment.  You may be finding that the combat training that served you well in the military is not serving you so well now.  Or perhaps your experience of being deployed has left you feeling overwhelmed and not like your old self.  You are not alone.  Research has found that many returning armed services members experience social, physical, emotional, financial, and academic challenges when making the transition to civilian life.  In fact, one study found that between 11 and 17 percent of returning veterans meet the criteria for combat stress reactions such as depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Other estimates are even higher.  Additionally, many others experience less severe, yet still disconcerting symptoms. 

Common symptoms of those exposed to extreme stress and the war zone environment include:

  • Reexperiencing traumatic events through intrusive memories or nightmares
  • Attempts to avoid reminders of the event
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling down, sad, or depressed
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Difficulty being able to calm down
  • Feeling keyed up and anxious
  • Becoming easily startled
  • Feeling irritable and angry
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Difficulty with motivation
  • Feeling empty or numb
  • Having thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or take your life
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Overuse of alcohol and other drugs
  • No longer enjoying activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty connecting and relating to others
  • Feeling paranoid that others are watching you or want to harm you
What Can I Do?

If you are experiencing difficulties with transitioning back into civilian life, you may find the following tips helpful:

Be patient with yourself
If you are finding the transition difficult, you may find that you are becoming frustrated with yourself for not be able live the way you once did.  It is important to remember that you are dealing with a lot right now and expecting yourself to be able to handle things the way you once did is unrealistic.  The reaction you are having does not mean you are weak.  It is a common response to stress and trauma.  The good news is that what you are experiencing is likely temporary and will eventually pass. 

Work on reestablishing current relationships and developing new ones
Experiencing combat can leave Veterans feeling alone and isolated from others.  It can also make it hard to maintain relationships with friends, family, and significant others.  Additionally, you may have found that you returned from deployment to find you relationships have changed and don’t feel the same to you.  Although you may not feel like working on these relationships, it is important to make attempts to work through these issues and have an open discussion with those you care about.  You may also want to try to joining clubs or organizations, especially those that will allow you to connect with other Veterans.  Connecting with other Veterans can make the transition to civilian life easier for you. 

Learn to understand and express your emotions
Combat can leave one feeling a range of emotions, from emotionally numb to overwhelmed.  Becoming aware of your emotions and finding healthy outlets for your emotions will help you deal with these feelings. 

Plan and prepare for school
Coming to the classroom after returning from deployment may feel like it will be an easy task.  However, Veterans returning from deployment often have to deal with many changes and adjustments and the transition to academics may not be as easy as you thought.  Try to schedule a manageable course load and set reasonable goals for yourself. Go to class and take good notes. Establishing a daily schedule will make the transition easier.

Take care of yourself
Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.  These activities are not just good for your physical well being but they also help you increase your ability to manage stress.  Many people find engaging in relaxation exercises helpful in reducing stress.  Some of these exercises can be found at: http://afterdeployment.dcoe.mil/topics-health-and-wellness

Monitor your use of alcohol and other drugs
If you are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life, drugs and alcohol may seem like a way to ease the transition.  In reality, the use of alcohol and drugs increases the likelihood of depression, insomnia, relationship problems, academic difficulties, among other things. 

Avoid exposure to war-related news and movies
Exposing yourself to things that remind you of your own combat experience can trigger strong feelings that are difficult to manage. 

Grieve losses
If you lost a friend or comrade it is important to grieve the loss.  This can be done a number of ways but usually involves finding a way to honor the memory of the person and saying good bye.  This may include writing a letter to the person, having a ceremony for them, or doing something in their honor, to name a few. 

Additional and more detailed tips can be found at: http://www.afterdeployment.org/

What if I Need More?

If you are experiencing more severe symptoms or find that these tips are not providing relief, you may want to consider counseling.  Historically, the Armed Services were less than supportive of those seeking treatment for issues related to mental health.  This kept many of those dealing with psychological problems stemming from combat from seeking help.  As a result, many people needlessly suffered. 

This trend has begun to change in recent years.  The Armed Services have been actively attempting to reduce the stigma that often accompanies psychological problems and access to mental health care.  To learn more about these efforts, please visit: http://www.realwarriors.net/. In addition to combating stigma, there are resources for veterans who have struggled with thoughts of suicide. Check out http://veteranscrisisline.net/

What Should I Expect if I Decide to Come to UCS?

If you would like to meet with one of our counselors, please stop by UCS (either campus) to complete some paperwork.  Once this is done, you will be able to schedule an initial appointment.  During this appointment, a counselor will meet with you to gain an understanding of you situation and how we can help.  At the end of the session, you and your counselor will discuss treatment options that will best address your needs.

For more information about how to schedule an appointment you can refer to this web page.

In addition to UCS, there are other offices on campus that can help. Please contact Military Student Services for more information: http://www.militaryservices.vcu.edu/