Manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In College

This article originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report, and is republished with permission.

Mike Rials needed to sit in the back, on a row near the exit, in a college class with more than 50 people. Heart pounding, palms sweaty and overcome with anxiety, he would leave 10 minutes in if he couldn’t get a back seat.

"I couldn’t focus on the teacher or anything that was going on. I had to escape, I felt the need to escape. It was almost like I was back in my Humvee when I got hit," he says.

Rials went into the Marine Corps in 2003, after high school. He deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan during his four-year tenure. Rials was injured and lost a friend during his third deployment, when his vehicle hit an explosive.

At home, Rials struggled with survivor's guilt and family issues. Since he spent his adult life in the service, he felt like he couldn't relate to and didn't have anything to offer the civilian world. He self-medicated with drugs, alcohol and spending during the first 18 months after he left the military. When he ran out of money, he enrolled at the University of Texas—Dallas. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder more than a year later.

Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. But veterans aren’t the only ones who experience PTSD. In the U.S., 7 to 8 percent of the population is expected to have it in a lifetime.

[Read about one veteran's struggle with PTSD.]

Understanding and managing PTSD it is key to academic success.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is a neurobiological disorder where somebody’s brain and entire nervous system has been impacted either by being in an environment of chronic threat or being exposed to overwhelming physiological, emotional or psychological events," says Christina Bass, a clinician and recruiter for the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas—Dallas.  

The brain and nervous system, overwhelmed, are unable to process the past trauma. As a result, the emotional response tied to the past events is interjected into the present – meaning the person frequently relives and responds to the past.   

Rials struggled his first few semesters as he tried to manage school and deal with his symptoms on his own. But things looked up once he got treatment from the University of Texas—Dallas' Center for BrainHealth​.

The goal of PTSD treatment is to help vets change how they respond to ​their anxiety so they can succeed anywhere, the center’s Bass says.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Students with PTSD might not struggle in college, but some of the symptoms of the condition can make it difficult to integrate academically and socially into the campus community, which is important to student success, says Kai Chitaphong, national director of Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, an organization that helps veterans improve their mental health and integrate successfully on college campuses.

[Learn how to deal with mental illness in college.]

Veterans go to college older and with vastly different life experiences than their teenage counterparts, which can​ leave them feeling isolated, out-of-place on a college campus and annoyed with the beliefs and values of the student body.

Those feelings of isolation and frustration can trigger symptoms in veterans with PTSD, Bass says.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​To increase their chances of success, veterans can look for schools that provide strong institutional academic, social and financial support, experts say. For students with PTSD or any mental disorder, good counseling and clinical services on or nearby the campus are important.

[Discover federal programs that give student loan relief to service members. ]

Prospective student vets might look for an on-campus counseling center, a nearby VA medical center or a community-based outreach center, VITAL's Chitaphong says.

​"In that way they have a bunch of options," says Chitaphong. "So if they do feel like their PTSD symptoms or just adjusting is very difficult for them, they can then reach out to those different entities to get the help very quickly."

Counseling can also help student vets understand and tolerate their younger counterparts better and bridge the gap between their different life experiences, which can help veterans integrate socially.

For veterans who want to identify and connect with others who may understand their military background in college, going to a school with a strong veteran ​student body presence can be helpful.

"Veterans can succeed anywhere. Their experience in the service​ means they have been trained to succeed. What an individual needs to ask him- or herself is, 'Who do I want to be in my academic and social support network?'" Aaron D. Krasnow, assistant vice president and director at Arizona State University—Tempe counseling services, wrote in an email. "For some, fellow veteran students, faculty and staff are critical because of shared experiences and the ability to quickly build social support."

​Overall, no matter where vets go, experts say it’s important they remember PTSD is treatable and that there are a lot of resources to help them succeed in college.

"The more an individual knows about his or her particular symptoms, triggers and effective coping strategies, the better. If a veteran has lots of experience in understanding their PTSD, then they can plan their academic and social schedule with what they know works best." Arizona State University’s Krasnow wrote.

Rials, now 30, graduated with a degree in psychology in 2012. He plans to continue his education, but for now, he enjoys working with other veterans​ at the Center for BrainHealth and spending time with his two-year-old daughter. He credits his sessions at the Center for BrainHealth​ with helping him succeed in school.

"Once I started school, once I found the​ Center for BrainHealth, everyday has been better than yesterday."

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