Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the classroom
Felicia Haecker knows about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from every angle. She’s seen it in veterans bordering on homelessness in RV campgrounds across the United States. She’s seen it in the face of a student scoping out a classroom to make sure he’s in the back row with a clear path to the exit. And she’s felt it herself, knowing she’s physically present but mentally somewhere else because her route to the grocery store triggered a deeply buried memory.
Haecker, a recent graduate of the doctoral program at Brandman and now an adjunct professor, was a crime scene photographer in the Air Force. “I thought PTSD was just the guys in combat,” she said, who learned her chronic insomnia was one of many symptoms.
In any given Brandman class, one in 12 students is likely to have PTSD symptoms. If the class includes a high number of veterans, particularly ones whose deployments included tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, that number could climb to one in four.
That’s not unusual. According to Academe, the online journal for the American Association of University Professors, 8 percent of all college students have been diagnosed with PTSD and the rate for veterans ranges from 14 to 28 percent, depending on where and when they served. The causes can be anything from near-death experiences in a war zone to serious car accidents to sexual assault. And the symptoms can range from avoidance to hyper-arousal to reliving the incident.
The underlying cause of PTSD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM) needs to be exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. That includes directly experiencing the traumatic event; witnessing a traumatic event in person; learning that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental); or experiencing first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (as was the case for Haecker).
“The disturbance, regardless of its trigger, causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning. It is not the physiological result of another medical condition, medication, drugs or alcohol,” states the fifth and most recent DSM.
“An infinite number of things could trigger an incident related to the trauma,” said Dr. Marnie Elam, who has both worked with patients recovering from crisis trauma and teaches psychology courses at Brandman’s Palm Desert and San Diego campuses. “So you really can’t say ‘don’t do this’ and protect everybody.”
Dr. Loren O’Connor, assistant vice chancellor for the Office of Accessible Education and Counseling Services, agrees. His office makes sure that students who need help get help and making faculty and staff members aware of what to do if a student confides in them.
As with any mental health issue, public perception can complicate PTSD. During recent discussions during the creation of the newest definition for the DSM, some military leaders urged that it be called an injury rather than a disorder in order to make military personnel less reluctant to seek help.
“Most people with any kind of challenge or learning difference, don’t like to disclose,” said O’Connor. “There’s still a fear of being stereotyped, particularly when it comes to psychological disorders.”
But O’Connor also sees a shift as awareness grows. “Veterans will make light of it, minimize what’s happening, but once you start talking about it you realize it’s there ̶̶̶ maybe not every day, but once a week, once a month. And when you do disclose, then you have to start dealing with it.”
“The way I approach it academically, is to just talk about it, to not treat it as anything special or different from anything else,” said Elam. “Otherwise you’re just adding to the stigma. When I talk about it, or depression, in a psychology class, we talk about what it is, how it affects people, how to treat it. We talk about it from a hopeful perspective, not acting as if this is something so terrible we can’t talk about it.”
Haecker realized she needed to work on her symptoms when she was in the doctoral program. She did that by getting an accountability partner, a fellow student who helped her stay on track through regular emails. Knowing that there were other veterans in the program also helped.
Faculty members might never be aware of who has PTSD in the classroom. Because of privacy regulations, it’s up to students to decide when and if they disclose it to their teachers or academic advisors.
What faculty and staff members can do, said O’Connor, is be ready to listen and to advise the student to seek whatever help is needed through his office. A variety of support is available that can be of particular help to students who have difficulty concentrating, a common symptom of PTSD.
The good news is people can both learn to cope with PTSD and recover from it. “There are lot of people with mental and physical illnesses and they do perfectly fine in the classroom. It does not necessarily mean you’ll have it the rest of your life,” said Elam.
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