PTSD a barrier for college-degree seekers

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OGDEN — Post-traumatic stress disorder can be debilitating under any circumstance, but for someone trying to obtain a college degree, it can make a diploma seem like an impossible dream.

That’s what Aaron Ahern, a psychologist at the Salt Lake VA Medical Center, said April 17 at Weber State University during a PTSD conference organized by students. One of several speakers at the forum, Ahern focused on PTSD in the academic setting, an issue he says deserves some attention.

Ahern said stress, anxiety and fear are normal parts of college life for any student, but for someone with PTSD, particularly a military combat veteran, those normal reactions to higher education can often spiral out of control.

Ahern said some veterans dealing with military-related PTSD might find it hard to attend classes or take exams in large rooms crowded with people. Some may find it difficult to attend school full time. Some deal with severe hypersensitivity to activities and noises often found on a college campus.

“An academic setting can be entirely different (for someone with military-combat-related PTSD),” he said. “And it’s important for us all to be aware of that.”

Ahern said students experiencing combat-related PTSD may exhibit very specific tendencies, like sitting in the back of the classroom, avoiding the exposure of their backs to open doors, leaving the classroom unexpectedly, becoming irritable during class discussions and sleeping in class. PTSD victims may also miss class frequently and appear distracted or have trouble with memory.

“I want to caution (people) not to take this and say ’now I can diagnose PTSD,’ ” Ahern said. “These are just things that can help with overall understanding.”

Ahern said cases of military PTSD can often cause a person to remain in a constant state of high alert when out in public places, which is something that can severely affect one’s learning environment.

“If you constantly have your head on a swivel, it’s hard to concentrate,” he said. “And we all know concentration is a prerequisite to learning.”

Ahern said it’s important that students who may be suffering from PTSD know there is help. He coordinates the Veterans Administration’s “Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership,” a partnership between local colleges and universities that helps soldiers transition to students. The program offers educational and occupational counseling, benefits counseling and employment assistance.

Charlie Chandler, WSU’s veterans coordinator, said the school’s Veterans Services Department has developed special mentor and tutoring program for veterans. 

“We have too many veterans who are stopping their college experience,” he said. “Education can be a real scary place to be. A university setting can be overwhelming. We’re here to help make the transition easier.”

For more information, go to www.weber.edu/vetaffairs or call 801-626-6039.