A new study has found that military veterans who have started or gone back to school have a more difficult time when they use avoidance coping strategies (denying or minimizing negative thoughts and emotions).
The findings show, however, that emotional help and support from family members reduces the negative impact of these conditions. The researchers suggest that counseling and wellness centers at colleges and universities, where student veterans may seek help, should offer more outreach to veterans’ families, including couples counseling.
The VETS, or Veterans Experiencing the Transition to Students project, is directed by Dr. Shelley Riggs, University of North Texas (UNT) associate professor of psychology.
For the study, Riggs and her team surveyed 165 veterans who were currently enrolled in one private and two public universities in Texas, including UNT. The majority (117 participants) had been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq.
There were participants from every military branch, with nearly half serving in the Army and more than 83 percent being non-commissioned officers.
In addition to being asked about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological symptoms, the student veterans responded to questions about their academic, emotional, personal and social adjustment to college, coping styles, social support and romantic relationship functioning, as well as their sense of being connected to their universities.
The findings showed that avoidant coping strategies, in particular, tend to interfere with the veterans’ successful adaptation and psychological functioning in a school setting.
Avoidant coping can often be adaptive in military settings, where traumatic reactions must be suppressed to continue a mission, said fourth-year doctoral student Daniel Romero, who focused on the student veterans’ coping strategies for the study.
“However, in the civilian world, ignoring difficult emotions and stressful events is counterproductive and can contribute to intrusive thoughts and other PTSD symptoms, and depression and anxiety symptoms,” added Romero.
On the other hand, veterans who used problem-focused coping — identifying problematic stress and taking steps to resolve or overcome it — reported significantly lower levels of depression and generalized anxiety symptoms, but only if they also reported high levels of emotional support from family members, Romero said.
Romero added that this emotional support didn’t seem to affect levels of PTSD symptoms, which typically result from traumatic events, such as military combat, rather than other circumstances that could lead to depression and anxiety.
The findings are published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Source: University of North Texas