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Utah scholar calls suicide risk among student vets 'alarming'

Published August 4, 2011 11:07 pm

Study • Those with combat trauma need more resources.
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After returning home to Utah from the Iraq war and a year-long hospital stay to recover from major injuries, Brad Chidester sat in college classrooms surrounded by other young people and felt utterly alone. His combat experience made it impossible to relate to the seeming frivolity of undergraduate life at Dixie State College.

"They are enjoying their life and you don't feel like you belong anymore. Life was different for me," said Chidester, 28, who lives in the central Utah town of Fountain Green. There were times in college when Chidester felt he couldn't go on, before he was admitted to a hospital to begin treatment for his psychological injuries. He is among the near-majority of college student veterans whom scholars now believe have experienced suicidal feelings.

In a new study led by the University of Utah's National Center for Veterans Studies (NCVS), researchers found that 46 percent of those responding to a survey reported some suicidal thinking, while 10 percent planned suicide and 7.7 percent attempted it. Eighty-two percent of those who attempted suicide experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Other studies indicate lower rates of psychological distress in both the general student population and among veterans in clinical settings, according to lead author M. David Rudd, a professor of psychology and dean of the U. College of Social and Behavioral Science.

"There is a critical need for universities to become familiar with the unique problems faced by student veterans and make sure they have the resources to help," said Rudd, the scientific director for the NCVS and an expert in suicide prevention. "Their life experience is dramatically different. We need to help connect student veterans to other student veterans. They feel different and that compounds the isolation they feel."

He presented the findings Thursday at the American Psychological Association's convention in Washington, D.C. His co-authors are Jeffrey Goulding, a NCVS research assistant headed to New York University for graduate school, and University of Texas psychiatry professor Craig Bryan.

The study, which will appear this month online in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, is based on surveys distributed by Student Veterans of America (SVA) to its members this year. About 525 students returned completed surveys — 415 males and 110 females with an average age of 26.

The sampling wasn't ideal, but researchers are confident they captured a representative group.

"The gold standard would be to identify all veterans students at all universities and we would randomly select from all the students in a way to reflect gender, geographic, age and race. That wasn't feasible for us," Bryan said. While women seem overrepresented, the racial makeup of the respondent group reflected the diversity found within military ranks, he said.

The team took steps to get the survey into the hands of a large and representative class of student veterans. The SVA has 394 chapters in 47 states, reaching between 20,000 and 30,000 students, according to executive director Michael Dakduk.

The solicitation for the survey explained that it was exploring veterans' college experience and did not indicate it targeted emotional adjustment. That served to minimize the possibility that students with psychological difficulties would self-select in or out of the survey.

Nearly all respondents had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and most had seen action.

"Combat exposure has psychological and emotional consequences," Rudd said. "Those injuries persist after they leave service. These wars are demonstrating that with considerable power."

The 34-item questionnaire sought information on students' service history, college experience, demographic background and psychological issues. About a third experienced severe anxiety and nearly a fourth reported severe depression.

"In short, the 'average' student veteran participant reported moderate anxiety, moderately severe depression, significant symptoms of PTSD, and evidencing at least some noticeable suicide risk," the study states.

Salt Lake Community College, where veteran enrollment exceeds 700, maintains a veterans center and this summer the U. established its own support center to help the 700 vets on campus attending school on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. But U. center director Roger Perkins believes there are far more vets on campus when counting those who are not seeking GI benefits.

These students have a tough transition between the disparate cultures of the military and academia, but faculty and staff should not assume that vets suffering psychological injuries are less able to succeed in college, said Perkins, who served 21 years in the Army.

Graduation rates for veterans are very low, according to Gerald Sanders, an Air Force veteran and U. business student.

"No one understands what you've been through, so you hang by yourself," said Sanders, president of the U. chapter of the Student Veterans of America. "The bottom line is you were out there defending the country. You don't know if you will be deployed to the middle of nowhere or whether you will see another day."

For Chidester, who suffers from PTSD, such small things as a dead animal on the road side can take him back to the combat and carnage he experienced in Iraq. Chidester was on reconnaissance patrol in 2004 near Mosul, manning the .50 caliber on his unit's Stryker, when a suicide bomber rammed the vehicle. The blast and flying shrapnel pierced the left side of his torso and inflicted serious head injuries.

He spent a year regaining use of his arm, but the most intractable injury was invisible. Nightmares kept him awake and he endured panic attacks.

"You are constantly living at a high level of stress, then you go to college and you have papers to write, and tests and deadlines and you can't focus. It amplifies what you are experiencing," he said.

The father of four girls, Chidester eventually earned his associate's degree at Snow College and is now majoring in recreation resource management through Utah State University's distance education program.

bmaffly@sltrib.com