New Media to Aid in Expansion of Mental Health Services for Service Members, Veterans

On August 31, 2012, the President signed an Executive Order requiring the Departments of Defense (DoD), Veterans Affairs (VA), and Health and Human Services (HHS) to work together to prevent suicide, enhance veterans’ access to mental health care through community providers, increase the number of VA mental health providers, and promote mental health research to develop more effective treatments.  The Interagency Task Force on Military and Veterans Mental Health, co-chaired by high-level official representatives of the DoD, the Veterans Health Administration, and the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), prepared an interim report that was made available to the public on May 21, 2013.  According to the report, both the DoD and the VA are incorporating telemedicine and internet technologies to expand access to care.

The DoD, for example, has implemented clinic-to-clinic telemedical care that allows providers to care for patients located in settings where authorized TRICARE providers offer medical or psychological services.  One House lawmaker is encouraging the DoD to permit patients to receive mental health telemedical care in their homes.

Internet Sites and Smart Phone Apps

The DoD is also offering psychological health care tools through the internet via sites including afterdeployment.org and Military Kids Connect, which offer support to service members, families, health care providers, and other community members dealing with the deployment cycle. Military Pathways, an anonymous mental health and alcohol education screening program.  It is also promoting the use of mobile medical apps to support clinical treatment. Breathe2Relax encourages breathing to calm “fight or flight” responses; T2 Mood Tracker allows patients to record emotions and behaviors and track progress on using indicators relevant to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.  PTSD Coach educates users about PTSD, provides a self-assessment, aids in managing symptoms, and recommends sources of support. PTSD Coach was created by the VA’s National Center for PTSD in collaboration with the DoD’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology.  The VA has also expanded its use of telemedicine into clinics and, in limited instances, into homes.

The VA has initiated a group of pilot projects to allow patients access to treatment through community providers in locations with accessibility issues or that experienced difficulties recruiting and placing mental health professionals.  Eleven such projects were in effect in February 2013 and 20 were expected to be operational by May 31, 2013.  The projects vary from site to site, but some are expected to include telemedical mental health services.  The VA and the DoD are also creating an Integrated Mental Health Strategy on “Military Culture Training” that is intended to educate community providers about the unique needs of veterans and service members.  The web-accessible training will focus on military culture, deployment stress, and related mental health and substance abuse issues.  The VA has already launched a Community Provider Toolkit to provide information to community providers seeking to treat veterans. In addition to existing in-person programs, online programs include psychology courses, as well as a behavioral health certificate program consisting of 14 online courses that train civilian providers regarding the military and issues that specifically affect veterans and their families.