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Student Veterans & Substance Misuse Prevention: Four Tips for Success

As a 21-year-old junior in college, I was deployed to Iraq. That call came right in the middle of the first semester. I went from being a college student sitting in classrooms to patrolling the streets of Iraq. On my very first day in country we took mortar fire and the first week on patrol my truck was hit by an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Devise). A big change from being in the classroom and worrying about getting homework done!

After a year-long deployment, I returned home mid-summer and jumped right back into college, picking up where I left off. Since it was such a long deployment all of my friends had just graduated. Now I was older than the other students, didn’t have any friends, my life experiences were like no other, and I was still figuring out how to make the adjustment back to civilian life.

LISTEN: Dave Closson talks about what campus prevention professionals should know about military vets.

I felt alone, but today our student veterans certainly are not alone. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states there are more than 1 million veterans using their education benefits, most are between the ages of 24-40, and 62 percent are first-generation students. This influx of student veterans adds another scope to your prevention efforts. The Department of Veteran Affairs has developed the VA Campus Toolkit which has many great resources for supporting student veterans on your campus.

I’d like to share some thoughts from my experience as a student veteran and now working in substance misuse prevention to help you serve the student veterans on your campus.

Community: As I noted above, I felt alone and as if I didn’t really fit in with the other students on campus. I felt out of place, uncomfortable, and as if nobody could relate to my experiences. This led me to battle the adjustment and challenges on campus alone. Tip: Reach out to the veteran center, student veterans group, or veteran employees and invite them to join the conversation and prevention efforts. The team approach is a core value in the military just as in prevention work. Collaborate and create opportunities for veterans to build a community.

Targeted Efforts: Building off the sense of community and belonging on campus, I often felt many of the campus activities and prevention efforts were for the “normal college student,” not for me. This mindset led me to quickly dismiss prevention messaging, and avoid programs and resources. This also furthered the sense of not belonging. Tip: Consider implementing some veteran-focused prevention strategies. Following the collaboration I previously mentioned, include feedback and input from veterans throughout the process of identifying, developing, and implementing these strategies.

Risk and Protective Factors: This should be the focus for all your prevention efforts – identifying, prioritizing, and addressing risk factors, protective factors, and intervening variables. This is always a solid approach. Tip: I encourage you to look at the data, conduct focus groups, and ensure you don’t get tunnel vision when considering these. Although student veterans are in fact students, they might be facing a different variety of risk and protective factors. There could be many things that influence substance misuse, ranging from accessing veteran education benefits, disabilities (visible and hidden), post-traumatic stress, moral injury, low positive emotion, mental health, and stressful relationships.

Cultural Competence: This is at the heart of the Strategic Prevention Framework and is at the heart of serving our veterans on campus. Be sure to value and appreciate your veterans. Tip: Take time to understand military culture, battlefield skills, and deployment-related stressors. Listen to student stories and understand their unique stressors on campus. Also, some veterans might need help understanding the campus culture, organization, and structure. Help them translate the military structure into the campus structure. This will show them how they fit into the big picture, the resources available, and help them understand who to talk to for help.

Ultimately, hold true to the Strategic Prevention Framework; let data and collaboration lead the way!

** Originally posted on CampusDrugPrevention.gov

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