Student Spotlight: Chuck Slater on Veteran Mental Health
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School
Chuck Slater, current master’s student in UC’s Mental Health Counseling program and former naval submarine officer, is passionate about veteran mental health. We sat down to discuss his journey as a veteran and graduate student, his perspective on the veteran mental health crisis, and how we can support and honor former soldiers on Veteran’s Day.
Chuck graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2006, subsequently undergoing several years of training at a nuclear prototype training unit, service aboard the USS Pittsburgh submarine, and training other officers at the Naval Submarine School. After leaving the military, he entered the manufacturing industry. “It was a good job, but it never really thrilled me,” he explains. “I missed the feeling of service I had with the military […] eventually I made the decision to go into working on therapeutic skills for veterans and so to do that, I enrolled in the counseling program here at UC.” In addition to being a veteran and a student, Chuck is also a stay-at-home father. He tells me that being in the military equipped him with the skills set to maintain self-discipline while juggling these multiple roles, but at the same time, being a veteran and a student comes with its own set of challenges. During his service, Chuck became accustomed to structure. “In the military, things can be counted upon to occur in the same way. That’s not always true in our world of academia,” he states.
Chuck goes on to explain that military service comes with its own unique culture and mindset, something which he believes people need to understand in order to support veterans whether informally or professionally. “We’re a different breed in some ways,” he explains. “Be ready to deal with gallows humor, different takes on core beliefs. A hard one for me when I was transitioning into this role [as a counselor] was the acceptance that everyone is doing their best that they can all the time. In the military, things are very standardized, it's very much defined what is expected, what needs to be done, what you should be capable of doing, and that's your mission and your job all the time. So to be able to accept [the fact that that any] less than that is maybe the best that someone can do... it’s hard because you believe that you should be able to attain these goals. And if not, that's because you're not giving the full last measure.”
Chuck explains that unpacking and adjusting this mindset has been key in understanding mental health and removing the stigma from it, a shift which he is glad to report also seems to be happening within the larger military culture itself. He explains that when he was serving on submarines, any individuals who saw a mental health counselor immediately lost their security clearance because they were viewed as unfit to complete their duties. “You have to remember that in the military other lives depend on your performance […] The military is so mission first oriented. And it has to be because of what it does, but the trouble is that anything that interferes with the mission then becomes a bad thing,” he tells me. These repercussions created a culture of shame and stigma, and those experiencing mental health difficulties often hid their struggles and avoided help. And the conditions were certainly not easy; Chuck explains that in addition to tight quarters and a complete lack of daylight, the vessel operated on an 18-hour schedule, so he would work for 12 hours, sleep for six and then repeat, rotating through a 24-hour day every four of five days. This lack of sleep and distorted sense of time certainly took a toll on overall health and well-being. “They found that this was terrible for you, so they’ve since shifted over to 24-hour day cycles so people can get more consistent sleep,” he explains.
Understanding the background and experience of veterans, both within the military and afterwards, is a key first step to helping them, Chuck explains. Not only are PTSD and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) overrepresented in the military population, but lifestyle and transitions leave their own kind of impact on military family systems. “As counselors, we deal with wellness,” he shares, “and that's an incredibly important factor for veterans; their lives are often disrupted at incredible rates. So even if you're not working with the veteran [themselves] but if you're working with family members of the veteran, their life is disrupted. And that can be traumatic for spouses and children.”
Chuck shares that suicide and homelessness are two other areas to consider when supporting veterans. According to VA statistics, there are more than 17 veteran suicides per day in the U.S. “This statistic highlights the real need for mental healthcare and wellness that’s out there,” says Chuck. Veterans are also much more likely than non-veterans to experience homelessness which in turn impacts physical and mental health outcomes. “Some great strides have been made and ending veteran homelessness lately,” says Chuck. “The Department of Veterans Affairs set a goal of housing 38,000 homeless veterans by this year and they've achieved 80% of that goal so far. So, they've made some good strides, but I think there's also a really strong need to remember that this is a problem that won't just go away as soon as veterans are housed.” Chuck explains that misconceptions around housing being the sole solution to veteran homelessness have had harmful repercussions; a recent bill (Ohio House Bill 407) that was set to divert money towards critical services such mental healthcare and job support for homeless veterans was pulled because it was determined that the need no longer existed. “It's not going to do us any good to house veterans and then have them back on the street in a few years because of other mental health issues. So, I think we really need to keep our guard up in terms of ending homelessness by completely caring for the entire individual, which I think is a role counselors can play a great part in because we deal with wellness and we look at the holistic picture of the individual.”
As Chuck says, Veteran’s Day is an important change to critically consider the needs of veterans and to become culturally competent regarding these individuals. To learn more about veteran mental health and the needs of veterans, check out this report from the Wounded Warrior Project. On campus, the Office of Veterans Programs & Services will be hosting a Veteran’s Day ceremony on Thursday, November 10 at 10 AM in the Tangeman Atrium.