Mission-focused on mental health

Oregon State offers counseling specifically for veterans and military students.

Military culture and training emphasize self-reliance. Donald Phillips, Oregon State’s first mental health and wellness coordinator for the military-connected community, provides counseling as a resource, helping clients learn to effectively practice self-reliance, deal with challenges and strengthen their resilience.

Phillips served for four years as an Army medic, including a deployment to Iraq in 2009-10. His own military experience gives him cultural awareness and context with veterans and active duty students. Military training makes them mission-focused, he says, so Phillips can frame mental health in terms of “what is our goal? How do we get there?”

Having a dedicated counselor in Counseling and Psychological Services is the latest resource offered specifically for veteran and military students at OSU. Since the Holcomb Center1 was established in 2015, Oregon State’s military-connected community has grown to more than 1,700 students in Corvallis, Bend, LaGrande and Ecampus, plus 250 to 300 eligible family members.

Besides helping students navigate the often-complicated process of accessing benefits that help them pay for college, Holcomb Center Director Willie Elfering prioritizes being “a place where they can feel heard, seen and know they matter.” Student coordinators for women, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous and people of color work to ensure students from marginalized communities have a voice in the center’s resources and services. 

Elfering notes there is sometimes an unspoken bias against the veteran community because of its association with the government or military conflicts around the world. Getting other students “to know our students as students, not what they’re labeled as,” helps veterans connect with the larger campus community, he says. Phillips adds that many veterans miss the camaraderie of the military, and having different lived experiences than traditional students can make them feel isolated. The Holcomb Center gives them a community and helps them find places to belong.

Elfering emphasizes that the Holcomb Center relies on partners like CAPS, the Academic Success Center, Basic Needs Center, Family Resource Center and Office of Student Advocacy to serve OSU’s military community. He measures success one student at a time.

It’s the individual moments,” Elfering says. “If you can help one person, it’s worth the whole thing.”

Phillips spends six to eight hours a week at the Holcomb Center so students can get to know him, have a conversation and possibly set up a session. Veterans as a group have high rates of suicide, combat trauma, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, depression and substance abuse. 

Phillips says triggers like a loud bang can cascade from a person’s thoughts to physical responses like an increased heart rate or release of adrenaline. He uses exercises to help clients recognize what’s happening with their bodies, separate the logical from the emotional parts of the brain and “give them the skills to de-escalate themselves.” Learning to regulate and prevent this cycle from escalating may not make a problem go away, but it allows people to get through events and “make it out to the other side,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s just gonna suck.” There’s a tendency in the military to accept that, but it can lead to what Phillips calls “learned helplessness.” So he encourages clients to be willing to change their situation. 

“They have to do it themselves,” he says. “They are the only agent of change in their life.”

1The Military and Veteran Resource Center became the Holcomb Center on Veterans Day in 2023, honoring U.S. Army Sgt. John N. Holcomb, who had been an Oregon State University student before being killed in action in Vietnam in 1968.