Retired Army Lt. Col. John Bechtol understands how important it is for veterans on college campuses to have access to mental health services.
"To come on campus in your mid-20s after having served, having nothing in common with your peers, it tends to generate feelings of separation," Bechtol said. Even beyond considerations of post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, "there's often just this sense of loneliness, a feeling of being disconnected from their classmates."
As assistant dean of students for veterans' services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bechtol is in a position to do something about it. He works closely with campus mental health providers, and those with Veterans Affairs locally, to ensure that the school's 550 veteran students and 250 military dependents don't get lost in the shuffle on the 40,000-student campus.
While proactive today, that was not always the case. When Bechtol took his present position in 2008, the school had few mental health mechanisms in place for those returning home from war.
"We had reservists coming back from Iraq three days before school started, and we had no information for them," he said. Today there is close cooperation between his office, which is jointly operated by the dean of students and registrar offices, along with the local VA medical center, campus mental health providers and a campus veterans club.
"We are making it a place where the veterans can share their perspective and feel they have the support of other students," Hanson said.
Veterans looking for a college experience need to know: What makes for a solid, reliable campus mental health experience for veterans? Bechtol and other Madison campus experts advise:
1. Early outreach
One sign of a strong campus mental health program is a readiness to show an open door to veterans even before they arrive. "We answer a lot of questions for veteran applicants, and once a student applies, we contact all those who self-identify that they are veterans," Bechtol said. "Then we contact all the admitted veterans before they get on campus to help with questions about housing, questions about benefits." The veterans center may hold 40 summer orientations to address a range of issues, including mental health concerns.
2. Quick response
When veterans seek mental health support, campus officials should be ready to respond. At Madison, this means open hours for drop-in needs throughout the weekday, no appointment necessary, said Bjorn Hanson, an associate psychologist with University Health Services, Counseling and Consultation Services. The campus clinic cannot provide months of ongoing care, "but we can meet with veterans in crisis for as long as it takes to connect them with longer-term services," he said. "We will do whatever is needed to bridge that gap."
3. Coordinated support
In addition to delivering care, campus mental health services should help veterans get plugged into other local resources, including the veterans services office on campus, the local VA, and student-run veterans groups. In this way, mental health providers can help former troops build a needed support network.
"We will explain to them what each service offers, what the differences are," Hanson said. Among other things, he will make it clear that services rendered on campus don’t go onto students' permanent record in the same way VA mental health care does. "At the veteran center, you can walk in and they do not disclose anything. If you get a prescription from the VA hospital, then that is going to be noted in the system."
4. Providers who understand
Students who are prior military should seek out psychologists and social workers who have at least a basic understanding of the military mindset.
"The first step comes down to educating people on the cultural backgrounds people bring to the table," Hanson said. "With people who have been in the military, you need a team that knows something about their culture, about their experience. We don’t ever want to just make assumptions about what the veteran’s experience means."
5. Fostering success
When veterans seek mental health services on campus, it’s not just because they are grappling with issues. Often it’s because those issues are getting in the way of academic success. They need a support team that understands their priorities.
"School is their mission, and they want to do well," Bechtol said. Campus mental health professionals should work with veterans services experts to get these students the accommodations they need, whether it’s classes scheduled later in the day or adjustments to exam times. There’s much a proactive campus administration can do to help a veteran successfully transition to campus life.