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COL Phil’s View: June and PTSD Awareness

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by Col. Phil McNair
Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, American Public University System

June is PTSD Awareness Month, and considering the fact that many members of the military, not to mention their family members, suffer from PTSD symptoms, this seems like a good time to talk about something few others have: PTSD and online education.

If you have been diagnosed with PTSD or suffer from what you believe are PTSD symptoms, you might be concerned about going to college. Will your symptoms interfere with your ability to go to class, or complete your schoolwork? How will other students react if they know you have PTSD? What will happen if your symptoms cause you to act inappropriately, such as in a situation where something happens that reminds you of your traumatic experience? Will your instructor treat you differently if she finds out you have PTSD?

It is not uncommon for college students who have left school to go to combat to report that they feel awkward and uncomfortable when they return to campus. The other students, they say, don’t understand what they have been through. They tell stories about feeling much older than their classmates, even though they may actually be about the same age. They sometimes have less tolerance for typically shallow college student behavior and have trouble relating to classroom topics or discussions.

Of course this is certainly not true in all cases because PTSD affects everyone differently. Each person’s symptoms are uniquely their own, even if they fall into the same general categories. But if you are placing your college plans on hold because you are worried about your PTSD symptoms, you might consider going to school online as an alternative to a traditional face to face campus.

Let’s look at some of the differences between a traditional campus and an online campus, and how those differences might be helpful to someone with PTSD.

  1. 1. On a traditional campus, you attend class in a social environment where you are physically in contact with other students. Online, you attend class via computer, without sitting in a class next to other students. Possible benefit: If you feel uncomfortable around other people, you don’t have to be with them if you take classes online. If you have a physical disability in addition to your PTSD, this benefit can be even more attractive.
  2. 2. On a traditional campus you must attend class according to the school’s schedule. Online, you can generally login at times during the week that are best for you. Possible benefit: If you are not feeling like going to class because you are having a bad PTSD day, you can login to your online class when you feel better.
  3. 3. On a traditional campus you must make appropriate plans to get to your classroom, meaning that you have to physically go to your campus, get to the right building and classroom and return home afterwards, regardless of weather, traffic, car trouble, etc. Online, you simply have to get to your computer. Possible benefit: There is a lot less logistical planning required to go to class online, and much less time is consumed by not having to account for getting to and from campus. This reduces the opportunities for something to happen that might trigger a PTSD symptom. Not to mention the positive ecological benefit by avoiding vehicle emissions.
  4. 4. On a traditional campus you sit in class and have to respond spontaneously when the instructor calls on you. Online, questions are generally posed by the instructor and you have time to think about your answer, research and write your response, and post it when you feel that it’s good enough. Possible benefit: Apart from allowing you to perhaps learn more by more thoughtfully engaging in discussions, you won’t feel like you are “on the spot” in a class full of other students when you are online. No one will be looking at you when you respond to questions through your computer, so you may feel more comfortable making your points without being self-conscious about your appearance, how you talk, gesture, and so forth.

These possible benefits of online education for someone with PTSD are just a few of the more obvious ones, but you get the idea. There are many reasons why going to college online can be a good option for some. Others may prefer the physical contact with people that a traditional campus affords. And some who suffer from PTSD might use the online alternative to get started, and then transfer to a face to face school when they feel ready.
Whatever education format is right for you, the important thing is to try and not let your PTSD hold you back from achieving your goals. I guarantee that holding your diploma will make you feel better about yourself.

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