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Veterans organizations relying on virtual care for mental health with coronavirus social distancing

Maj. Michael Vernale, Mental Health Flight commander worked with the 90th Missile Wing LaunchWERX agency to launch the idea as part of an ongoing effort to innovate the Air Force to meet the demands of tomorrow. The plan is to install the capability in each missile alert facility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joseph Coslett)

With coronavirus-related social distancing guidelines, veteran organizations say it does not mean social interaction has to be cut off.

Telehealth is helping veterans cope and continue to receive care, said officials with the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs N.C. Coastal Health Care System.

Most veterans with post traumatic stress disorder aren’t having an issue with isolation, because it’s usually a coping mechanism used to manage stress, said Ellizabeth A. Sullivan, interim chief of mental health for the Fayetteville VA Coastal

“Some of our veterans are very comfortable isolating right now,” Sullivan said. “They’re saying this is easy.”

At the same time, Sullivan says some treatment plans usually encourage volunteering and being part of a community to help deal with stress for those with post traumatic stress disorder.

“The challenge for treatment progress is how to keep them focused and moving forward, while we have this nationally forced social isolation that could potentially reinforce their symptoms of avoidance,” she said.

That’s where telehealth comes in to continue engagement, Sullivan said.

Through secure Video Connect Calls, Sullivan said sessions with therapists can still continue.

“For our veterans with preexisting mental health conditions or symptoms, one of the fears is that the stress and confusion of our COVID-19 situation could really compound or exacerbate what they’re already dealing with,” she said.

The national VA and Fayetteville VA Facebook pages are offering videos, wellness tips and whole health initiatives that encourage things like yoga, Tai Chi or joining platforms such as Zoom to promote self care, stress management and staying socially connected, Sullivan said.

“We want to help them thrive as much as possible and that means finding creative ways and thinking outside the box about how they will get that social engagement, how they will maintain their health routine even under these extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

Peer support veterans are those with their own mental health concerns who are trained to support others.

“I can say something 100 times, but if they hear it from somebody they connect with, that they trust and believe has the same experiences and perspectives, it’s so much more powerful,” Sullivan said.

The Fayetteville VA is in the process of regrouping virtual telegroups, she said.

And the VA supplies tablets that have data packages for veterans who don’t have a smartphone, laptop or tablet.

Support services are in place to help a veteran set up Zoom or applications to access platforms, Sullivan said.

“People who were initially resistant or like, ‘Oh I don’t know about that,’ are finding it very convenient,” she said. “They’re finding that they can still have a personal connection with their therapist, get the help and care that they need from the safety of their home.”

Tara Ricks, acting communications director for the Fayetteville VA, is also a combat veteran who receives her veteran care in Durham and can attest to telehealth.

Ricks said there was a time when she needed to cancel an appointment because she was busy but was also stressing out about having to leave her home and find parking for the appointment in the midst of her business.

Her provider called her and said the appointment didn’t need to be face-to-face and was able to address Ricks’s needs with a 15 minute phone conversation.

“I felt like she was listening to me …,” Ricks said. ” That was my first virtual VA appointment, and I remember when I left that I’m like I’m never doing a face to face appointment again … I remember feeling so relieved that I didn’t have to go park at Durham VA … the process of getting care has not changed.”

There are times Sullivan said appointments will need to be face-to-face, but she said telehealth is providing options that veterans are tapping into with the current coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re still here and we still want to treat our veterans and respond to their needs, and that’s always going to be the case,” she said. “We want to serve as many veterans as we can with the highest quality care. That’s our commitment. And I think everybody’s starting to see we can do that virtually.”

Sullivan and Ricks said the VA’s MyHealthVet website also allows veterans to use secure messages to connect with their providers.

An example may be medication, and Ricks and Sullivan said providers encourage veterans to reach out to them a week before they start to run out of medication.

That way, Ricks said the medication can be sent in the mail and reduces veterans potentially exposing themselves to illness.

And for veterans with suicidal ideations or who think they may harm themselves or others should reach out to call the National Veterans Crisis Line, Sullivan said.

“If they’re feeling suicidal, if they’re feeling disconnected, scared, worried about their health, their safety and the safety of their loved ones … feeling like they don’t trust themselves to be safe — (there’s) counseling on the phone ..,” she said. “And I tell every veteran that I interact and talk to that, ‘I want to help you and I can’t help you if you’re not alive.'”

The Veterans Crisis Line number is 1-800-273-8255, and veterans should press “1.”

Hope for the Warriors

Hope for the Warriors is a national nonprofit, which also assists with veterans, servicemembers and families in the post 9/11 community, said Brianne Sampson, Hope for the Warriors director of clinical support services.

Programs range from clinical health and wellness to sports wellness.

For the most part, other than sports and recreation activities, most of our programming remains the same,” Sampson said.

Like the VA, Sampson said the pandemic is shifting operations virtually.

With online platforms and two facilitators, members are able to sign on each week for designated topic discussions, such as meditation or stress relaxation techniques.

There’s live interaction with peers, other veterans and family members, and required check ins helps provide accountability, Sampson said.

“A lot of times when isolation starts occurring, it can be difficult to get out of that isolation,” she said. “The weekly groups and classes allow people to connect, even if they’re at home.”

The six week Resilient Warrior and Resilient Family programs are being virtually on Zoom once a week for an hour and a half.

“It’s a live group, where you get to be part of a class that teaches coping skills and helps with stress management,” Sampson said.

It teaches meditation, coping with post traumatic stress symptoms, stress in general, anxiety triggers and helps with mood, wellbeing and physical health.

The classes are no cost, and participants are provided with a workbook and a T-shirt at the end of the course

The next set of classes start this week.


© 2020 The Fayetteville Observer