Traumatic brain injury: Knowing is half the battle
By Thomas Brennan | The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.) | Published: March 9, 2014
The signature battlefield wound among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now moving to the classroom.
And the local college is on a mission to educate its student and faculty about how to teach and study with those who suffer the effects of traumatic brain injury.
Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville recently hosted speakers from the Defense and Veteran Brain Injury Center or DVBIC who presented information about the causes, signs and symptoms of a traumatic brain injury and how they may complicate life in academia for those who have suffered one. While TBI has come to the forefront due to the wars in the Middle East, any blow or jolt to the head such as a car accident or fall can cause a TBI.
“Watching this presentation, I realized there were a lot of positive things going on,” said Navy veteran Debra Johnson, 46, of Jacksonville. “Having been in the military for 18 years, there are a lot of things not heard, not seen and not spoken of; so watching this and having them break everything down to help everyone understand it brings more attention to the topic.”
Thought to have suffered a TBI during her service in the Navy after hitting her head numerous times on Naval vessels, Johnson said the presentation has helped her prepare to go to the Department of Veterans Affairs with confidence and explain her symptoms, hopefully prompting the appropriate treatment. Aside from the VA, Johnson said that after seeing the presentation she feels as though there are ample resources available for those suffering from a TBI and its effects.
The presentation explained how a TBI can impact a student in the classroom. Some of the possible affects include cognitive impairments, speech problems such as slurring, impaired social interactions, trouble forming sentences and sleepiness. People who have suffered a TBI may also have trouble understanding auditory instruction or commands prompting them to ask more questions in order to understand.
“Just because you ask a question or fall asleep in class, it doesn’t mean you have a TBI; but there are some people with TBI who have these difficulties and we need to be aware of them,” Johnson said. “There needs to be a certain level of proactivity among students with disabilities. You can’t expect teachers to know you are having a problem. You need to let them know what is going on and this presentation created a segue for people to talk about it.”
As a professor at the community college in the paralegal program, Robert Swietzer said the biggest challenge in dealing with students with a TBI is that they often let their difficulties in the classroom go on for too long before they finally ask for help. In doing so, they limit themselves on how much can be done for them; whereas, if they had said something earlier, better accommodations could have been made.
“Now that I’ve had this class, I understand how certain accommodations can make a big difference in someone’s ability to learn,” Swietzer said. “I feel as though being a veteran myself I may be able to get them to confide in me and allow me to help them a bit more.”
Some of the strategies to mitigate barriers to education for those who have suffered a TBI include letting them pick their own seat to reduce anxiety, offering tutoring, giving extra time on tests, allowing sunglasses in class, encouraging note taking and offering assistance without belittling the person. By understanding these possible accommodations, Swietzer said he feels better informed to be able to help his students who need it.
“Initially a TBI will seem limiting, but with education and success they will prove to themselves they can conquer their disability,” he said. “I want to help them thrive and not be part of the problem by adding to their feelings of anxiety and incompetence.”
According to Deborah Waun, the DVBIC program director aboard Camp Lejeune, 2.4 million traumatic brain injuries occur each year in the United States with 475,000 of them in children. Understanding TBI, she said, is important for educators because it is the only way they can understand and accommodate their students.
“It’s an invisible injury so when people look at you ... unless you have a big scar on your head, they aren’t going to see you have a problem,” Waun said. “It’s up to the person ... to speak up and let the college know they do have symptoms and issues.”
Waun said new students need to learn and adapt to the environment by developing new skills and compensatory strategies for whatever their daily routine may be. One of the most important things Waun recommends for any person adjusting to life with a TBI is having a good support network such as family and friends. Lastly, she said, the challenge of accepting that life with a TBI will be new and complicated needs to be accomplished for a successful transition.
“I don’t think (a TBI) can prevent students (from succeeding),” Waun said. “The main reason we like to get out there and educate is so people know that when you have a TBI your life doesn’t have to stop. You may have to put more effort and energy and work into what you are doing than the average person, but it doesn’t mean you can’t thrive.”
Since 2009 Coastal Carolina Community College has periodically hosted awareness programs on a variety of topics such as TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder. As the director of veterans programs aboard the campus, Christopher Sabin is responsible for accommodating student veterans during their pursuit of a higher education. Presentations about issues such as TBI are just one way that the college is building awareness among both faculty and students, Sabin said, but students with TBI and other invisible wounds must self-identify.
“Getting people to self-identify as having a TBI is something that is very difficult,” he said. “Most of the time, the students with TBI don’t really want to be singled out. They want to be regular students and don’t want to be treated any differently.”
For those students, Sabin said his message is a simple one: “It’s OK to get the help. It’s OK to come here and say you have an issue.
“We want to help you with your issues. You’re not alone. ...There may even be faculty with those issues. ...There’s people everywhere that can help you with your issue and help you be successful — you just need to ask.”