VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
VA Salt Lake City's VITAL Program
VA’s VITAL program lets student Veterans know we “got your six”
A lot of Veterans want to pursue higher education when they get out of the armed forces. And it doesn’t matter if you served four years or retired after decades of service, heading back to school can be a daunting task, and Veterans face their own unique challenges when pursuing a degree. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership program or VITAL is helping Veterans face that task.
The coordinator of VA Salt Lake City Health Care System’s (VASLCHCS) VITAL program, Dr. Aaron Ahern, says VITAL has three goals, 1) outreach to student Veterans 2) provide mental health clinical care on campus to make it more accessible 3) training school faculty and staff. VITAL is a collaborative effort between Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), state and local governments, and the schools to get student Veterans the tools they need to succeed. The VITAL program offers a lot of different tools for student Veterans, but at the center of the VITAL toolbox is the peer-to-peer mentor.
A Battle Buddy for Higher Education
The mentors are fellow student Veterans, who get significant training through VA in a variety of services, including: benefits, mental health, and suicide prevention. The peer mentors conduct most of the outreach for the program, and are the goto person for the student Veterans.
“Among our Veterans—in general—there is a stigma about asking for help and not wanting to appear weak,” say Dr. Ahern. “Especially when it comes to mental health, but if they can hear it from another student Veteran, it can make it kind of normal.”
The mentors reach out to new student Veterans, get them into their offices, get a sense of the new student Veterans' needs, and then periodically check in with them. The mentors help Veterans get enrolled in VHA health care, determine if they should be using vocational rehab or the GI bill, help them get into Veteran Service Officers to make a claim or learn about making a claim, but most importantly, student Veterans get someone who has their back.
“They are getting the one-on-one attention they deserve,” says Travis Murphy, a Marine Corps Veteran, peer-to-peer mentor, and Weber State University student. “I want to say I see myself as an advisor and peer— someone they can come to and talk about their classes if they are struggling.”
Travis is not only a mentor, but he also benefited from the program. Serving as a work study at Weber State’s Veterans Services Office, a VITAL mentor let him know that he was enrolled in VHA healthcare—something Travis did not know. That led to primary health care appointments and mental health counseling through the VITAL program on campus at Weber State.
More than just Outreach
The mentors are so much more than just outreach specialists. The mentors “build that relationship and trust, and then start asking them specifically about how they are doing in areas,” says Dr. Ahern. “And then it is easier for a Veteran to disclose, they’re struggling. Then [the mentors] get those services that are specific to their need.”
A common need—mental health care. The mentor will connect the student Veteran with VA clinicians—best of all, a student Veteran doesn’t even have to leave campus. We “do a full gamut of outpatient services,” says Dr. Ahern. “We just do them out there [at the school]. They don’t need to come to the VA, but they can just come over to us and then head out to class.”
Dr. Ahern also looks at the entire program as a suicide prevention program. “For some people, they hear that and they think someone who is in active crisis mode— we do that, but what I think is more important and more valuable with VITAL is that we are trying to get people to be successful at life, and reengaging with something that is meaningful for them.”
Dr. Ahern says the VITAL program helps the Veterans deal with issues before they reach that crisis level, but if they do, mentors are trained to address suicide both from the crisis side and the preventative side.
The mentors “may not know all the risk factors,” says Dr. Ahern, “but they are trained on how to screen for suicide risk factors. Then they know what to do with that.”
“We will spend 2-3 hours sitting down and talking to a Veteran, if need be” says Travis, “to make sure that they are okay and that they can walk out of this office without any threat to their life.” And if they are not okay, the mentors know who to call to get the Veteran the support they need.
"A VA Embassy on Campus"
Weber State's Veteran Services Building "A VA Embassy on Campus."
Currently, VASLCHCS’s VITAL program encompasses seven schools in Idaho and Utah. Those schools are Idaho State University, Utah State University, Weber State, University of Utah, Westminster College, and Utah Valley University. Talks are underway to expand to Southern Utah University and Western Governors University.
“The schools allow us to be there,” notes Dr. Ahern. “They are gracious hosts to have kind of a VA embassy on campus.”
But it is much more than just that, Dr. Ahern says it's a collaboration with the schools. The schools help put VA in touch with student Veterans.
Weber State University's Director of Veterans Services, Charlie Chandler.
“We find that if we give Veterans the tools for success, they are more likely to finish their education,” says Charlie Chandler, Director of Veterans Services at Weber State and a retired Army officer. Chandler says when new Veterans walk through their door, they take them through in-processing for the semester, and then walk them right around the corner to meet the VITAL peer mentor. “We try to strike while the iron is hot and it seems to work very well.”
The schools also help with recruiting new mentors, and administer the work study portion of the program.
“One of things is that we make our peers WOCs (Without Compensation Volunteers) through the VA hospital,” says Dr. Ahern, “but then they are VBA work studies—so then they get paid to do what they’re doing. The reason they can be VBA work studies is because they are helping Veterans with benefits.”
Staff and faculty at the school get training on Veterans issues through VITAL. The first part of the training called Veterans 101 is online, and the second portion is an in-person scenario-based course, where faculty face issues Veterans may bring to them. Upon completion, they’re given a “Got Your Six” patch to display— letting student Veterans know that a staff member or professor has been trained on Veteran issues and is Veteran friendly.
“When a Veteran comes back and says I passed,” says Travis. “It is a great feeling because I am seeing my influence is actually positively affecting somebody.”
Right now, the success of the VITAL program is largely anecdotal. Dr. Ahern, Charlie, and Travis believe it is working and each can rattle off a number of success stories.
One of the success stories involved a peer mentor calling a student Veteran for an outreach call. During the call, the Veteran divulged to the mentor that he was struggling. The Veteran had a lot of recent losses in his life and was thinking of dropping out of school. While the mentor talked even more with the Veteran, the Veteran let the mentor know he was having suicidal thoughts. The mentor with the help of Dr. Ahern got the Veteran the treatment he desperately needed. However, their help didn’t stop there, they also reached out the Veteran’s school and got him academic support.
“All of that,” says Dr. Ahern, “because a peer reached out to him.”
If you would like to learn more about the VASLCHCS VITAL program, email VASLCHCS VITAL Program Coordinator, D. Aaron Ahern, PhD, at Dennis.Ahern@va.gov.