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Improving veterans' overall health and academic success

November 17, 2016

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - About two-thirds of veterans using Veterans Affairs Department education benefits earn a degree or complete a certificate or training program. The remaining third drop out, however, overcome by challenges in transitioning from service member to student.

Now a study led by a health services researcher at the University of California, Riverside offers a solution: peer-led services, which, the researcher says, are ideal for connecting student veterans to resources and healthcare services.

"Peer-led supportive services offer veterans a sense of community and have the potential to increase retention rates and help ensure academic success," said Ann Cheney, an assistant professor in the Center for Healthy Communities in the School of Medicine and the lead author of the study that appears in the fall 2016 issue of Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action.

She explained that many university campuses already have supportive services for students.

"But these most often are neither veteran-initiated nor veteran-led," she said. "Some veterans are deterred from accessing these services because of values and attitudes promulgated within the military, such as self-reliance and pride."

The research paper stresses that veteran-led programs connect students with fellow veterans and veteran faculty members who share military experience.

"Such faculty members can help veteran students transition from the military's rigid structure to that of a student, which tends to be more self-directed," Cheney said. "By seeking help from VA and community providers and researchers, campus communities can play a vital role in improving veterans' overall health and well-being and academic success."

The study was conducted at six campuses in rural Arkansas to describe challenges and lessons learned in the first year of a VA/Student Partnership for Rural Veterans project. To develop veteran-to-veteran services, Cheney and her colleagues leveraged established community advisory boards. They also collaborated with student services, faculty with vested interest in veteran health, and leaders of student veteran organizations.

"Engaging veterans, campus leaders, and community stakeholders in grass-roots efforts to develop peer-led services and resources that are locally tailored to the needs of veterans can result in long-term collaborations and sustainable programs," Cheney said. "Supportive services can help veterans transition into higher education and potentially set them up for academic success, but the evidence base still needs to be established. This study leads us one step closer to understanding the value of peer-led services for our most recent generation of veterans."

Cheney sees the process of engagement described in the paper as an ideal way to engage members of at-risk student groups and the community to build partnerships to develop peer-led services for students in need of supportive services.

She was joined in the research by co-lead Justin Hunt and several researchers in Arkansas: Tracy H. Abraham, Angie Waliski, Shane Russell, and Cliff Hudson, at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, North Little Rock; Steve Sullivan, Dianne Swaim, and Caleb Lewis at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System Chaplain Services, North Little Rock; and Brian Candler and Sonya Hall at the VA/Student Partnership for Rural Veterans Community Partner.

The study, initiated in 2013, was supported by the VA Office of Rural Health and the South Central VA Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center.

A medical anthropologist with research experience in mental health and substance use health services, Cheney researches health disparities in underserved, primarily rural, populations, including women, veterans, ethnic and racial minorities, and immigrants.
-end-
At the time of the study, she was an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Division of Health Services Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and a research health scientist in Health Services Research and Development at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

The University of California, Riverside is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment is now nearly 23,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion. A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. UCR also has ISDN for radio interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.

University of California - Riverside

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