New ASU center to study veterans' wellness

Arizona State University has established a new, interdisciplinary Center for Veterans’ Wellness to conduct research and help vets affected by combat-related stress and trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Led by inaugural director Mary Davis, ASU Department of Psychology professor within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the center will draw together experts from a variety of disciplines across the university and its partner organizations to expand their work and develop new ideas.

The center launches at a critically important time, after more than a decade of war that has created a generation of combat veterans. The ASU center will build national visibility for research and treatment advances, bringing in scientists who have an accomplished record in veterans’ health research.

“The center is geared toward creating new knowledge that not only helps to ease difficulty and distress that many veterans face, but also builds on veterans’ strengths,” said Davis, a clinical health psychologist who studies chronic pain and emotional regulation. “In fact, it will promote what is already happening at a grassroots level among scientists around the [Phoenix area].”

Approximately 22 million veterans live in the U.S. today, more than 17 million of whom served during wartime. The stress and trauma of war can have a powerful effect on service members’ health and well-being. For example, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served during recent wars have been diagnosed with PTSD, compared to 7 to 8 percent of the civilian population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Here are individuals who have given so much, and they come home and they are facing enormous challenges,” said Keith Crnic, chair of the ASU Department of Psychology. “I won’t say problems – many people handle that transition just fine. But there are challenges.”

Crnic believes there are ways of easing the transition by delving methodically into the issue.

“Basic research needs to be done to understand stress and trauma – how the brain operates around them,” he said. “And we need applied research on how to intervene effectively. And then contextually – how do we help families help the veterans as they come back, and how do families also cope for themselves?”

The center is founded on four primary pillars:

• basic science research, exploring the fundamental biological, psychological and social mechanisms associated with stress and trauma
• prevention and intervention research, testing pharmacological, psychological, social and community-based treatments
• policy research, creating scholarship on how scientific evidence can impact broader policies that address veterans’ health
• education and outreach, educating service providers on the latest best practices for care

“This center is a way to expand ASU’s military-friendly mission, to include contributions to the science that supports the well-being of our veterans,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president for the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Because the Center for Veterans’ Wellness is a university-wide, interdisciplinary effort, it will be supported by the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, instead of an individual college or school. As the center emerges, Davis and Crnic foresee important contributions from the life sciences, the social and behavioral sciences, social work, nursing, health solutions, law and other disciplines.

In addition, many researchers at ASU collaborate with local health and social service organizations, such as the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Mayo Clinic, Barrow Neurological Institute and others. The new center will support and expand upon those kinds of community partnerships.

“Academics have sometimes been accused of staying in their ‘ivory tower,’” said Davis. “We want the center to be embedded in the community, in alignment with ASU’s mission.”

In her own research, Davis focuses not just on eliminating symptoms of chronic pain but also on enhancing quality of life. She would like to see the new center embrace this approach as well, focusing not just on avoiding negative outcomes but also supporting positive experiences and connections.

“ASU faculty are conducting some phenomenal research in areas of biological responses to stress, health care delivery, social and family dynamics, health care policy and more,” said Panchanathan. “We are excited to support these experts in collaborating to address such an important societal challenge.”

As the largest public university in the U.S., ASU already has a strong commitment to veteran success in education and has been named a “Military Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs magazine six years in a row. The university offers numerous support services to more than 4,400 military, veteran and dependent population students. These include the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, which provides a single point of contact for ASU veterans and their dependents; scholarships through the Tillman Military Scholars program; and VetSuccess on Campus, a joint program with the VA that provides academic, career and adjustment counseling.

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