An Air National Guard veteran, Matt felt his therapy appointments, at a clinic 20 miles from his home, were invaluable. But that 20 miles presented a frustrating challenge, one that could have hindered some of the progress made in his mental health care. What good is a session if you can’t get to it, or if you’re thrown into turmoil immediately before and afterward?
Luckily, Matt was able to participate in online video sessions on his computer right at home. No commute, no stress, and his “buddy” Oscar, a two-year-old bulldog/beagle mix, could sit in on sessions with him.
“I felt a lot more at ease,” he said.
As we approach another Memorial Day weekend where we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country, we know that our veterans have also made great sacrifices. Many former service members suffer with the invisible wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, which have been deemed the “signature wounds” of our current conflicts. And, sadly, we know that approximately 20 veterans die by suicide every day. In fact, we have now lost more veterans to suicide than combat in the current conflicts.
Fortunately, there are effective, evidence-based treatments that can help veterans, and others, struggling with PTSD and other mental health concerns. That is, if they can consistently get to care. Unfortunately, there can be significant barriers to accessing care. For someone living with PTSD, the financial cost, scheduling, and transportation associated with traditional mental health care can be huge barriers and an additional weight to an already cumbersome load.
Yet, just as our servicemen and women tackle the challenges in front of them with clear-eyed problem solving, we must rise to the challenge of caring for them with the same dedication and ingenuity. In behavioral health care, we believe that telemedicine may be an important piece of the solution. The use of these options in behavioral health care, such as digital video session, has been studied throughout two decades with impressive results. Studies consistently find that results are just as strong when care is delivered via telehealth, and that it is easier to access.
As digital technology creates additional points of access, mental health care can be delivered more frequently and with fewer barriers to our veterans. At the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn Medicine, we’ve seen the power of telehealth options for our clients. Over the past two years, we have been able to institute remote mental health care sessions with veterans and their families, some more than 100 miles away. These veterans may not have other access to care, especially not in a setting that understands their experiences and needs.
Apart from the challenge of distance, veterans and their families have a range of potential barriers to regularly accessing care. Transitioning into civilian life raises a new set of challenges. Work, school, and family priorities can make it difficult for veterans to find the time to take care of their own wellness. Being able to schedule appointments when and where it is convenient opens up a consistent avenue of care that would not have been there if digital options were not available. And we know that consistent engagement leads to be best results as quickly as possible.
Our clinic has been expressly designed to break down these types of barriers for veterans and military families, so we are able to offer therapy, including telehealth sessions, to veterans and military families regardless of insurance or ability to pay. Unfortunately, most other mental health care providers in Pennsylvania do not offer telehealth because this service is not required to be reimbursed by insurers in our state at this time. We are hopeful that access to telehealth options will continue to expand to better serve our veterans, military family members, and all those in our great state.
When it comes to mental health, the first step, reaching out, is huge. It can also be very difficult, especially for our service members. We want to ensure that everyone who does ask for help can get it, regardless of where they live, and telehealth can make that happen.