May 17, 2014

Dealing with Academic Difficulties Due to PTSD and Other Challenges


If you're facing serious academic difficulty, and are thinking about dropping out or changing schools, this article will help you weigh your options
Following a previous blog post, a reader asked about changing schools after a particularly bad couple of semesters dealing with PTSD.  The problem is common enough, and the answer is long enough, that it deserved its own post.

No matter how smart or talented or resilient you are, you are bound to experience a culture shock when you transition from military service to a college campus.  That transition often makes the first few terms on campus much harder than you expect them to be, which can lead to some serious academic issues.

To make things worse, the symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other serious issues usually start to show up during the second or third semester of school, compounding an already difficult transition.

If you're facing serious academic difficulty, and are thinking about dropping out or changing schools, this article will help you weigh your options.  Read on....

The good news is you may still be able to recover both grades and benefits, and stay enrolled at your current school, if that is what you'd prefer to do. You'll first need to talk to your academic advisor to create a plan to improve your academic standing and get you off of academic probation. Your school may have an academic intervention program that will help you identify your challenges and work with you to find solutions. You may be able to repeat some classes to repair your damaged GPA.  As long as you're still able to take classes, you can probably still get VA benefits, with a few stipulations. Talk to your school certifying official to find out the details.

If you are dismissed or would prefer not to continue at your current school, then you will need to find another school that you would like to attend if you want to continue working toward your degree, and complete the admissions/application process there.  Your academic history will follow you everywhere you go, but most community colleges and some private colleges accept all applicants, regardless of prior grades. On the other hand, you may prefer to attend a college or university that is more selective, and worry that they might not even consider an applicant with a bad transcript.  It doesn't hurt to ask; some colleges employ a "holistic review" in their admissions process that provide some flexibility and consideration of unusual circumstances.  You should discuss your situation with an admissions counselor at your school of choice to find out about more about their applicant selection process. You may be able to write a letter of explanation to accompany your application packet.

There are all kinds of schools out there, so you should take the time to find one that is a good fit for you, with your academic and career goals in mind. For example, some schools might have a huge veteran population and plenty of peer support, but less administrative support from staff who are overwhelmed with students. Or a school might have only a few veterans on campus, but each one gets individualized attention from a caring staff.  Some veterans find that online classes are the perfect answer to environmental PTSD triggers, like a stressful commute or a crowded lecture hall, while others find that online classes are harder and make their symptoms worse. Some schools are more focused on research and lab work, while others are more focused on teaching and discussions.  Some have huge classes where you can be anonymous, and others have small classes that might feel more comfortable. You'll need to figure out what your strengths, triggers, and challenges are, and what kind of resources might help you. Try to describe what the "perfect" school would be like for you, and then go and find a school that fits that description. They're out there.

Whether you stay at your current school, find a new one, or decide to take a break for a while, you will need to identify your specific challenges and work through those first.  If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or PTSD (all common challenges for student veterans), you should seek treatment for your symptoms and try to work out some of the complications before you try to re-enroll, or your situation will not improve. Your local VA Vet Center will have tools to help you cope with your symptoms, and can refer you to appropriate facilities for treatment.  If you would prefer seeing a private, non-VA-affiliated medical provider, your college may have medical services on campus or will give you a referral for a provider in your community. For more about taking a break from school, please see this article.

When you're ready to go back to school, your first stop should be to visit the disability services (also called DSS or SSD) office. A specialist there will be able to help you evaluate your academic goals, and may recommend specific courses or majors that will play to your strengths. You could also qualify for academic accommodations that will help level the field and eliminate some of the complications you have experienced.

As far as your VA benefits go, if you've been academically dismissed, you may be asked to demonstrate to the VA that you've resolved whatever challenges you had before they will approve you for benefits again. The VA will contact you if they need information or documentation from you. Be sure to follow through on anything that is required. If you are only on probation and are able to stay at your current school, you may be able to continue your benefits as before, but you may need to complete some extra paperwork for your VA file.  If you switch to a new school but were not dismissed, you'll just need to switch your benefits to the new school once you've been accepted there. Either way, your school certifying official can answer your questions and help you with the necessary paperwork.

Lastly, if your goals have changed and you don't want to go back to school right away, that's perfectly fine too.  Your Post-9/11 GI Bill(R) will be available to you for 15 years after your ETS date, so you don't need to feel pressured to use it right away.  After working a while, you may sharpen your goals and decide to go to school later for a credential or degree that will help you in your career, and you can use your VA benefits then. 

Good luck on your journey, and don't give up!

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