Veterans Going to College: Tips to Support Mental Health and a Smooth Transition

By Tiffany Eve Lawrence

As a service member, life is predictable. You spend each day with your unit working on shared tasks to accomplish a common goal. This daily routine can offer a lot of security and stability.  

When you decide to separate from the military and go to college, you might still have the moral support of your unit, but you are taking on this new phase as an individual. Pursuing higher education is an exciting next step for your future, but it may also be stressful in a way that is unfamiliar. 

If you entered the military as a teenager, life will be different when you reenter the civilian world as a veteran in college. It might be the first time you’re managing your finances, moving out on your own in an apartment or dorm,  growing life skills like cooking for yourself, or balancing the different aspects of college life. It’s also possible you’re managing mental health challenges related to your deployment, which affect how you experience the world around you. 

One study suggests that over 60% of college students during the 2020–21 school year met the criteria for at least one mental health condition. Additional research suggests that 1 in 5 veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan deal with depression and PTSD. Facing changes—including separating from what’s familiar to become a college student—can stir up emotions or trigger a reaction to any mental health challenges you might be living with. 

The really good news is that there are concrete things you do to maintain your mental and emotional well-being. Check out these four steps for veterans to support their mental health when going to college.

1: Be Aware of Sources of Stress

Leaving the military means giving up a reliable structure and a culture you’ve become accustomed to, which can be scary. Though this transition is likely a positive thing, and you may have many people rooting for you, you might also be juggling a lot of stress and pressure. Many service members making this shift tend to worry about similar things, which might include:

Paying attention to which things are particularly stressful to you can help you create a realistic plan to handle them. For example, if budgeting makes you feel anxious, you might make a plan to get familiar with money management resources that can help. If you’re dealing with loneliness, you can look for ways to get involved on campus or seek out support from the counseling center.

Check out additional tips for managing stress

2: Identify Mental Health Resources

Taking care of your mental health is a powerful way to manage this transition. The military offers access to counseling and other resources to meet the emotional and psychological needs of veterans. Some higher-educational institutions even offer full-time counselors for veterans on campus. Find out more about what is available to you by visiting benefits.va.gov.

You can also find affordable mental health support outside of the military or on campus

3: Get Connected

As a student veteran, you’re coming from a task-driven environment where you worked daily with a specific purpose and end goal. In this new phase of determining your purpose and goals, it can feel confusing or even shameful not to know exactly what is next.

Although this can be difficult, you are in good company with other student veterans—and other students: A long-standing study estimates that somewhere between 20% to 50% of college students are undecided about their majors. Plus, you have additional resources available to you:

  • Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE) connects incoming student veterans with other student vets who are trained peer advisers. PAVE can help with the adjustment to college life and connect you with resources on and off campus.
  • Military-Transition.org is a hub where you can be connected with mentors, find career-specific training, and get advice on everything from writing resumes and landing interviews to finding training and classes that meet your needs.
  • My Next Move for Veterans can help you narrow down your career interests and connect you with jobs and apprenticeships.
  • Student Veterans of America (SVA) provides resources, support, and an extensive network for veterans seeking higher education. There are many on-campus SVA chapters where you can meet fellow student veterans who likely share some of your same experiences and challenges.

4: Set Small Goals

Take some time to think about what you want to get out of your college experience. Maybe it’s growing a professional network, finding a mentor, or graduating on an accelerated timeline so you can get into the working world quickly. 

From there, you can start taking small steps toward meeting your goals. You won’t accomplish your goals overnight, so it’s helpful to be realistic and set achievable milestones that will help you feel like you’re making progress. For example, if you’re most interested in finding a mentor at school, make it a goal to attend two professors’ office hours each month. That way, you get individualized attention and feedback and can start to create stronger working relationships. You could also use a free service like Veterati, where you can be connected to veterans who have successfully transitioned into the workforce and can serve as mentors.

This phase of life may feel like slowly putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It can feel overwhelming to look at a table of pieces with no immediately obvious connections. But focusing on one small section first (for example, finding edge pieces) can give you some early wins and make the big picture less daunting. 

Check out additional tips for veterans going to college

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.