By Phil McNair
Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Office of the President at American Public University System
How does an online university address the needs of those diagnosed with PTSD?
Understanding PTSD and Promoting this Knowledge
Achieving the goal of creating a positive learning environment requires a coordinated effort among faculty and staff members. The first element is promoting an understanding on what PTSD is and how its symptoms can affect student behavior. Because PTSD is certainly not limited to military and veteran students, this knowledge is useful on many levels. A student may exhibit disruptive behavior in class or with a staff member on the telephone, for example, and a general understanding of how such behavior may be linked to PTSD can be useful for the instructor or staff member. Because of the size of the military and veteran student population at the American Public University and American Military University, some degree of knowledge about military culture is also very important so that when a student talks about his or her situation there is a level of empathy and understanding. If the student is a Marine deployed to a combat zone, for example, the teacher should know what that means in regards to the student’s ability to complete coursework and how it may affect his interactions with other students in the class.
Most of the students at APUS, whether they have PTSD or not, are working adults who want to take their classes and earn their degrees as quickly as possible, and do not expect their online college to have the facilities, such as counseling centers, that one might find on a traditional campus. In fact, most with PTSD never discuss it or surface it to school officials. The APUS disability office typically has very few active students who have been formally diagnosed with PTSD. It has even been hypothesized that the online college environment may be a safe way for those with PTSD to attend college, given the anonymity of the Internet classroom. However, that does not mean that issues may arise that are related to PTSD, including unusual or troubling student behavior inside an online class that needs to be addressed by the instructor.
Internal and External Resources for Managing PTSD
The second element is developing internal resources and having knowledge of appropriate external resources available to help students when they need it. APUS has a university Chaplain, for example, to whom faculty and staff members can refer students they feel might benefit from talking with a caring individual outside the classroom. Staff members who have special knowledge about the military, often retired military or veterans themselves, have been identified who can work with students via email and the telephone if a troubling situation surfaces. Faculty members who are in the military or have an understanding of the military comprise an additional resource to help students. External to the institution are numerous organizations and support groups that can be helpful in working with students, and these can often be accessed via the Internet. The National Center for PTSD, operated by the Veterans Administration, offers a tremendous amount of resources on its website for those who suffer from PTSD as well as caregivers and family members.
Faculty training is another significant undertaking at APUS designed to help teachers understand what PTSD is, how symptoms may show up in student behaviors in online classrooms, and what they should do about it. Teachers generally want to help the student with PTSD while keeping the class on track for other students, thus it’s in their best interests to know how to handle situations when they arise. A professional development workshop on “Stress, PTSD, and Military Culture” has proven to be popular among faculty who want to have better knowledge about PTSD as well as the resources available to them internally and externally. Workshops of this type are also facilitated by APUS experts for other organizations such as the Sloan Consortium, as a way of helping more colleges understand how they too can serve students from a distance.
APUS policies originally designed to help military students, but of benefit to all, include flexible rules for approving course extensions when students have legitimate reasons for being unable to complete their coursework on time. Faculty use such policies judiciously as one way of help students with PTSD (and others) when it is appropriate to do so. Understanding military culture and the student’s situation is key to ensure that faculty have the knowledge they need to make the right decision in these cases.
While APUS is concerned about its students, it is simply not feasible to expect an online college to be able to provide face-to-face support to geographically dispersed students who may need counseling or other mental health and medical services. Students will benefit most if they can be guided to resources located near them, such as counselors on their military base, or their own church, doctor, friends and family. APUS faculty are encouraged to work with their students when it is apparent they need help, and coach them to reach out to their own circle of support if they can. In many cases, for example, military students are stationed on military bases, which generally have web sites that identify base support services. The Internet can be a useful tool for faculty to locate those helpful resources as well as services provided by agencies such as the veterans Administration, and gently steer their students to those appropriate to their situation. In extreme cases faculty and student Advisors can use National Suicide Prevention Hotlines to link students directly with trained experts who can listen to them and help prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
About the Author:
Phil McNair joined APUS in 2002 after retiring as a Colonel from a 26 year career in the Army. During the past ten years he has served in a variety of leadership positions in Marketing, Academics, and the Office of the President. He was recently named Executive Director of the Higher Education Research and Scholarship Foundation by the APUS President