According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans committed suicide last year. Close to 200 occurred in North Carolina.
Many of those suicide victims suffered from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition triggered by a terrifying event or experience such as being in a war. At Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, there is a center where students who served in the military and have been diagnosed with PTSD can get help, says the center's liaison, Dr. Cheryl Curtis.
Cheryl Curtis: We have a spot where veterans could come and relax and get away. They can meet, they can talk with me if they have things that they need support be it on-campus or off-campus. I try to connect them to those things, whether it's disability services here on campus or if there's food insecurity or needing jobs.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Well, let me ask you this of the veterans, because you talk to them and you hear about things that they need, PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder is something that a lot of veterans are grappling with. What are you seeing on campus?
Curtis: They want a better understanding of it. Everybody with PTSD is not going to wig out or shoot up the place. And then PTSD like most anything is not a monolithic thing. For some it's mild, some it’s more pronounced. Some treat it with medication. Some use natural things like yoga.
Glenn: How large is the problem in terms of PTSD on your campus and here in Charlotte?
Curtis: So because the students don't have to disclose whether they have PTSD or not, that's a number that varies. The state mirrors nationwide where it can be 33% or less. Anywhere between 25 to 33% is what we're seeing.
Glenn: Do many of them come to talk to you about this and what kinds of things are you hearing?
Curtis: It varies in that it could be sound sensitivity or they have to deal with what we used to call flashbacks. Things that would trigger an episode where they feel like they're back in the field and then they have the support to know what to do when those triggers occur.
So many of them do come to talk to me about it. I'm thinking of one student in particular, and she didn't feel understood. More of her triggers were the way people spoke, sounds that were made, a crumpling of a paper during a test could throw the whole test-taking situation off. And she'd had to walk out and she's crying because 'I don't want to go to my professor and say I was triggered by that crumpled paper. It disoriented me. I couldn't finish. Now what do I do?'
We did the research a couple of years ago and we found that most of the veterans at Johnson Smith University that are utilizing VA educational benefits are women. So we had to make sure at these universities, particularly here, that our support that we give match exactly what those veterans need. What are the modifications that they need to be successful? What are some things that we need to keep in the forefront, like those that are hard of hearing or they don't like people behind them? So I encourage them to see the V.A. When we talk about suicide rates being anywhere between 18 and 22 veterans die by suicide a day, statistically, they say 14 of that, those folks have not had any touchpoints with the V.A.
Glenn: Anything else you'd like to add in terms of what the university is trying to do for students with PTSD veterans that I didn’t ask?
Curtis: So the university is working to make sure that we have cultural, military cultural competency training for our faculty and staff because, in order for veterans to feel welcome, it's not just about accepting their money and some professors being warm and fuzzy and some not. We just have to understand how we can give them the best experience while they're here. So the university is working to make sure that we hear those things that veterans are saying they need and we're making sure we're answering the call.