Student veteran health examined in first-of-its-kind study by University of Minnesota, MnSCU

Posted: May 29, 2009

Contact: Doug Anderson, doug.anderson@so.mnscu.edu, 651-201-1426

Survey finds student military veterans face some unique health issues

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (05/29/2009) — With more military veterans expected to go to school this fall as a result of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, universities and colleges will need to ensure student veterans’ unique needs are met, according to a first-of-its-kind comprehensive report issued today (Friday, May 29) by the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

The report, “Health and Health-Related Behaviors: Minnesota Postsecondary Student Veterans,” found that while student veterans experienced higher rates of some mental health issues and sexual assault (most notably among females), they did not differ substantially from the general student population in most measures of overall health.

“These are the first real health data available on veterans going back to universities and colleges as students,” said Ed Ehlinger, the director and chief health officer of the University of Minnesota Boynton Health Service. “We found that in most respects, the veterans look like the rest of the student population.”

Ehlinger will be discussing the study’s findings at the American College Health Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco Friday.

In spring 2008, 1,901 veterans enrolled in 15 Minnesota colleges and universities were surveyed about their experiences and behaviors in the following areas: health insurance and health care utilization, mental health, tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, personal safety and financial health, nutrition and physical activity, and sexual health. The survey was completed by 813 veterans -- a 42.8 percent response rate.

The survey found that, while similar to the general student population, veteran students do have some unique health needs. For example, student veterans have unique psychological issues related to their military service that impacts their mental health. Among male veterans, 9.1 percent reported post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with 2.8 percent of comparable non-veteran male students. Among female veterans, 14.1 percent reported post-traumatic stress disorder compared with just 5.4 percent of comparable non-veteran female students.

The study’s researchers were greatly concerned with the findings regarding female veterans and sexual assault: 43.7 percent of female veteran students report having been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, compared with 29.8 percent of comparable non-veteran female students. When asked if they were sexually assaulted within the past 12 months, 6 percent of female veterans said they had been compared with 3.9 percent of comparable non-veteran female students.

“Sexual and domestic violence is a big issue for female veterans,” Ehlinger said. “This is one area that is markedly different from the comparable non-veteran female students.”

In other parts of the study, researchers found that veteran students are better immunized and more physically fit compared with the general student population.

And while the common perception is that veterans have automatic access to health insurance, the study results showed that this is not the case. The study found that 18.6 percent of student veterans reported being uninsured, compared with 17.5 percent of comparable non-veteran students. The lack of health insurance for all students concerns university health officials because without insurance, students are less likely to seek medical care when they need it, Ehlinger said.

When it comes to alcohol use, the study dispels the myth that problem drinking is higher among veterans than in the general population, Ehlinger said. While more veterans have used alcohol in the last year (82.5 percent comparable non-veteran college students reported using alcohol in the past year compared with 87.3 percent of student veterans), the high risk drinking rate among veterans is no different than comparable non-veteran students, Ehlinger said.

The report found that the marijuana use rate among student veterans was actually lower, 5.2 percent, compared with a 10.3 percent usage rate among all comparable students. Student veterans reported lower rates of all recreational drug usage (except sedatives) compared to the general student population.

Researchers hope the information in this report will help identify issues affecting student veterans and help college and university leaders in their efforts to develop programs that address the needs of veterans enrolled in their schools.

"These survey findings underscore the importance of having campus veterans centers around the state," said Steven Frantz, system director of students services for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. "Veterans have unique needs, and the veterans centers provide a place that can address some of those issues and support their success in higher education."

Partial funding provided by a 2008 congressionally directed grant award to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.