WASHINGTON — The military services and the Veterans Health Administration of the Veterans Affairs Department increasingly use digital technology to reach out to identify and treat servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The second-ranking officers of each of the four services and a senior VHA leader outlined for the Senate Armed Services Committee today the many programs and delivery methods they are using to reach servicemembers who may have mild brain injuries or PTSD.
Increasingly, they are turning toward the “virtual” intervention of the Internet and digital technology, they said.
“This generation sometimes opens up much better through Skype” and other digital technology “than by sitting across the table” from a mental health care provider, said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff.
Some 780,000 soldiers have responded to the Army’s Internet-based Global Accessing Tool to measure resilience, and the service plans to expand its Web outreach, Chiarelli said. Also, the Army uses an Internet-based mental health screening to assess soldiers returning from deployments, he said.
Building on the their department’s suicide hotline, VA officials last year started an Internet-based chat line for servicemembers to discuss stress, said Dr. Robert L. Jesse, a physician and VHA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary of health. “Younger folks are much more used to [chatting on the Internet and texting on phones] than having a phone conversation,” he said.
Using consumer-based technology is increasingly important to reach servicemembers, not only because it’s a medium they are comfortable with, but also because those not on active duty – National Guard and reserve members, and veterans who have separated from service – are widely dispersed and sometimes hard to reach, Chiarelli said, noting an increase in suicides among Guard members not on active duty.
The increasing use of technology also can help in getting around problems from the national shortage in mental health care workers. For example, Chiarelli said, it would be beneficial for a soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., to be “seen” by a psychiatrist via Internet technology, rather than be driven 100 miles to Nashville to meet in person.
Besides the digitally based programs, the military officers outlined numerous ways their services are reaching out to troops and their families on issues such as traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention. All of the services have increased awareness training, starting with new recruits, focusing heavily on noncommissioned officers, and extending to flag officers. All said they are doing pre- and post-deployment screening, and reaching out to families.
The Army, in a program with the University of Pennsylvania, has trained more than 1,200 soldiers to be resilience trainers to others, with plans to place them in every battalion, Chiarelli said.
The Navy has a program called ACT – ask, care, treatment, or “ask about your shipmate, care for your shipmate, and help him or her get treatment,” said Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, vice chief of naval operations. The service began 10 training workshops at 20 locations this year, and plans to open five more by fall. And, he said, more than 100 sailors have been trained to teach others about controlling stress.
“Stress is a fact of life, and we want to reframe the issue to one of stress control,” Greenert said. The programs are designed “to build resilience to stress as part of a healthy lifestyle.”
The Air Force has increased training and counseling, and held a “Wingman Day” in May to underscore that every airman, regardless of rank, needs to watch out for changes in others and reach out to them if they suspect they’re not well, Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, Air Force vice chief of staff, said.
The Marine Corps, which has the most suicides per capita with 52 last year, recently created a hotline with the Tricare West military health plan, in which Marines and their families can call anonymously 24/7 to discuss stress, said Gen. James F. Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
Also, Amos said, the Marines focus on both physical and mental resilience beginning at boot camp, and conduct pre-deployment immersion training to get young Marines accustomed to a combat environment.
“The best thing we can do for them is not only to get them physically fit, but we want our Marines to experience back home most of the fear, anxiety, confusion and fog of war before they deploy,” Amos said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)