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Counseling screening tool works for military and nonmilitary college students, study shows

Wed, 05/05/2021

Masked veterans in group setting.

LAWRENCE — Since the 1940s, the GI Bill has helped provide educational benefits after service members complete military service. The most recent legislation, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, known as the Forever GI Bill, has expanded benefits and reduced restrictions, leading more veterans and their dependents to seek higher education. Those veterans often bring with them experiences requiring support and counseling beyond the commonly discussed post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet until now, little research has examined how well the most common counseling and psychological screening tools on college campuses work for veterans.

Arpita Ghosh“There’s a common stereotype that all veterans are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. But there are other things to understand about their experiences, such as their family situation, what branch of service they were in, what they are studying, their goals, their age and much more,” said Arpita Ghosh, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas. Ghosh is a co-author of a new study about counseling services for veterans enrolled in higher education.

To better understand how veterans are served, Ghosh and co-authors tested the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms – 34, a shorter version of the CCAPS – 62, both developed by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. The study was published in the journal Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development. It was co-written by Christopher Niileksela, assistant professor of educational psychology, and Aisha Parham, doctoral candidate in counseling psychology, all of KU, and Rebecca Janis of Penn State.

“It’s a good measure to see what a person is coming into counseling with. Counselors will often use the CCAPS 62 or 34 every few sessions to see if clients are making improvements,” Ghosh said. “Basically, we’re trying to see if the measure’s subscales hold well both for veterans and nonveteran students.”

The CCAPS - 34 assesses seven types of psychological symptoms common in clients at university and college counseling centers: Academic distress, alcohol use, depression, eating concerns, generalized anxiety, hostility and social anxiety. Researchers analyzed data from 2014 to 2016 of more than 174,000 clients at such counseling centers across the United States to assess both veteran and nonveteran students’ mental health concerns. They compared more than 2,800 students who had military experience with an equal number of randomly selected students who did not. Researchers then ran analyses on the data set to see if there was factorial invariance, meaning if the tool measured the same constructs across both groups.

Of all of the seven psychological symptoms and subscales, the CCAPS – 34 worked evenly for both groups. Only one item on the generalized anxiety subscale, “I have sleep difficulty,” showed differences across the groups. Ghosh said it was not immediately clear why that item was different for the groups, as it did not delve into what kinds of sleep difficulty a person might have, or why they may have difficulty, such as an effect of anxiety, PTSD or something else.

The analyses are an encouraging sign that the CCAPS – 34 is working well for both veteran and nonveteran students. While it is important to verify its validity for both groups through research, the study’s authors argue the assessment should only be part of a much-larger understanding of what each person who visits a UCCC is going through. Previous research has shown that veterans in higher education often have interpersonal struggles and difficulty relating with classmates, professors and others on campus who do not share or understand their life experiences. It is also vital to know a client as a more complete person, because they might underreport symptoms, not understand the importance of certain issues or even be uncomfortable discussing certain aspects of their lives and experiences with counselors.

Ghosh said she and colleagues are continuing to evaluate other psychological screening tools for both veterans and nonmilitary college students. This study helps show their methodology of assessing such screening tools is valid and can be used to study the effectiveness of others, such as those that assess career readiness of veterans in higher education.

Because of the large number of veterans seeking education, university and college counseling centers are vital to providing services and supports they need.

“UCCCs need to be equipped to deal with veterans’ issues, because the VA and Department of Defense aren’t necessarily set up to serve the sheer number of veterans we have. The demand is there, but the supply of counselors who understand veterans’ issues is limited,” Ghosh said. “And it’s important to see our clients through a holistic lens. There are things the CCAPS – 34 doesn’t consider, like branch of service, era a person served in, if they saw combat and so much more. All of those factors can contribute to how a person responds to counseling.”

Image credit: Pexels.com



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