Going back to school can be a daunting task at any age. But veterans face especially unique challenges when pursuing a higher education. That’s where VITAL (Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership) comes in. VITAL is an official government program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), design to help vets achieve success in school.
VITAL exists to serve all student Veterans. That could be student Veterans headed back to school on the GI Bill, or those using vocational rehabilitation and other programs.
VITAL is a partnership between the VA, schools and the state and local governments to make sure veterans have the proper tools to succeed in school. Dr. Aaron Ahern says VITAL accomplishes this in three ways: 1) outreach to student Veterans 2) provide mental health clinical care on campus to make it more accessible 3) training school faculty and staff.
The heart of the program is a peer-to-peer mentorship in which veterans help other veterans.
“Among our Veterans, in general, there is a stigma about asking for help and not wanting to appear weak,” Dr. Ahern told the VA’s Vantage Blog. “But if they can hear it from another student Veteran, it can make it kind of normal.”
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,” 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.”
Mentoring and suicide prevention
Dr. Ahern says he views the entire program as a suicide prevention program.
“For some people, they hear that and they think someone who is in an active crisis mode,” he says. “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.”
For more information on the VITAL program, visit the VA’s website at www.va.gov.