Half of Student Veterans Have Contemplated Suicide, Study Shows

August 04, 2011

Almost half of military veterans who are enrolled in college have contemplated suicide at some point, and 20 percent have planned to kill themselves, according to a study presented here on Thursday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

By those measures, the risk of suicide among student veterans is at least as severe as for veterans not in college, and much higher than for students who are not veterans, says the report, by the National Center for Veterans' Studies at the University of Utah and by Student Veterans of America.

Seventeen percent of all undergraduates have seriously considered suicide, according to the most recent data from the American College Health Association.

Colleges are largely unprepared to meet the needs of student veterans, whose numbers will reach the hundreds of thousands in the next decade, M. David Rudd, a professor of psychology and scientific director of the center, said at the meeting.

"If we don't think that through, it's going to be a significant and very difficult problem," said Mr. Rudd, a former Army psychologist.

Nearly half of student veterans show significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a third suffer from severe anxiety, and a quarter experience severe depression, according to the study.

The transition from military service to a college campus can exacerbate those issues, Mr. Rudd said, as student veterans often feel socially isolated and struggle to relate to others.

"I would rather have my classmates think that I was a 'crazy vet' than have to listen to them ask me for the thousandth time, 'Did you kill anybody over there?'" one student responded to a previous survey of veterans in college, said Maj. Glenn R. Sullivan, an assistant professor of psychology at the Virginia Military Institute, who also presented at the convention.

Meaningful intervention is a challenge if campus counselors lack special training to treat veterans, said Mr. Rudd.

Better coordination between colleges and the Department of Veterans Affairs may help, he said, noting recent grants to explore opening VA facilities on campuses.

The study, "Student Veterans: A National Survey Exploring Psychological Symptoms and Suicide Risk," was based on an online survey this year of 525 student veterans around the country. Nearly all of them had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and 58 percent had experienced combat. The respondents' average age was 26, and more than three-quarters of them were male.

The report will be published on the Web site of the National Center for Veterans' Studies in the next few weeks.